On Beauty

by Chris Bertram on March 27, 2006

I finished Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1594200637/junius-20 at the weekend and very much enjoyed it. For those who don’t know it’s a novel about academia, loosely modelled on Forster’s “Howard’s End”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/014118213X/junius-20 , and centred on the relations between the Belsey and Kipps families. Howard Belsey, an post-modern art historian from an English working-class background is bitterly antagonistic to Monty Kipps a black conservative critic/pundit who has made a career out of baiting liberals. They are forced to deal with one another thanks to the involvement of Belsey’s son with Kipps’s daughter. There are no plot spoilers so far (you’d know all that by about page 6) and I don’t want to post any — just to recommend it. I liked it more than her “White Teeth”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375703861/junius-20 , which she didn’t know how to end, but like that book it is witty and well-observed and has much to say about the lies people tell to themselves about themselves.

(I wrote something like the previous paragraph yesterday, but when I pressed “publish” WordPress sent me to a login screen and then eat my post. So I had to do it all again. In between I’ve read a few of the online reviews and reader reactions at places like Amazon. And I’m astonished by how many people seem to have just hated the book. Now like Smith, I’m British, and I’ve noticed that many of the complaints are from Americans who thinks she gets America wrong in various respects (most of the action is set in Cambridge/Boston) and has a poor ear for American dialogue. I’d be interested to hear if any commenters had that same reaction. Anyhow, I thought it was terrific.)



JanieM 03.27.06 at 12:24 pm

A friend recommended On Beauty so I read the first few pages in Barnes and Noble. I wasn’t taken enough to invest in a hardcover copy, but I do remember that in just that short sampling I decided that she gets the American idiom wrong (and that her editors — oh lord where have all the editors gone! — did nothing to correct the problem).

I can’t remember specific examples but they were along the lines of something I saw in the Irish Times once when I was over there: a sportswriter quoted an American athlete using the “Yes, I would have done…..” idiom. Americans don’t say that. We say “I would have.” Or “I will,” not “I will do.”

This seemingly little stuff looms hugely to anyone with an ear for idiom. I love the differences: picking up on them is half the fun of going across the water on those rare occasions when I get a chance.

I’ll read the book eventually, if only so that my friend and I can talk about it. But on first glance it seemed wearyingly familiar and depressing.


Kramer 03.27.06 at 1:36 pm

I thought it was great. When Zadie Smith is on her game I think she just understands: understands the little lies and preoccupations we all have, understands the essential humour in life, and manages to write about it all in a way that feels, at least to me, how I’d like to see myself.

Oddly I thought the end of On Beauty suffered a bit more from “I don’t know how to end itis” than White Teeth did (I won’t add any spoilers but just point out that the dramatic device the last portion of the book hinges on seems a bit strained).

Regarding the idiom. I think it’s worth noting that basically ALL of the principal characters in the book are, in some way, cross-cultural (either have lived in multiple countries or have a mixed race heritage). Given this it seems a bit odd to expect ‘American’ dialogue.


dunno 03.27.06 at 1:47 pm

ALL of the principal characters in the book are, in some way, cross-cultural (either have lived in multiple countries or have a mixed race heritage). Given this it seems a bit odd to expect ‘American’ dialogue.

I’m sorry, can you explain how being “cross-cultural,” or “hav[ing] a mixed race heritage” makes someone less likely to sound American? Do we really seem that homogeneous to you?


JanieM 03.27.06 at 2:05 pm

I’m not sure what dunno’s reaction means, but in more direct response to kramer —

If you’ve spent time in the U.S., Ireland, and England (those are my 3 samplings), you can certainly generalize to some extent about how people talk. Yes, of course there are regional differences within each country, never mind educational level differences, age differences, slang, jargon, etc. And there are probably some ethnic-origin-based differences (my family of origin (in the U.S.) was split between recent Italian immigrants and longtime rural Baptists, so I have some experience with this….)

But it’s still possible to make some generalizations about differences between American English and Irish, British, or Australian English (to name just a few variations!).

Americans say “paper towels,” “toilet paper” and “parking lot” where in Ireland and England (at least among the people I’ve visited) it’s “kitchen roll,” “loo roll” and “car park.” Americans would look at you like you were from Mars if you asked for the kitchen roll. (They would probably think it was something to eat.)

I think racial and ethnic mixing has almost nothing to do with this, and as for being “cross-cultural” — as someone who spent a fair amount of time in Ireland at one point, I can testify that as far as vocabulary and idiom are concerned, I started converging on local usage pretty quickly.

If I remember the bit of the novel I read correctly, the family that’s in America is American. Having British idiom come out of their mouths is jarring.


otto 03.27.06 at 2:14 pm

I thought she wrote it when she was living in Boston/Cambridge? Not that that would spare you from errors.


Ozma 03.27.06 at 2:23 pm

Having read many scathing reviews of Zadie Smith’s work, I assumed I wouldn’t like her writing at all. As it turned out, I think her ear/eye/style are all top-notch. I’m not sure where the hostility to her comes from — she is absolutely a traditionalist and yet she gets the sort of virulent backlash usually directed at pomo, postco, feminist, etc. etc. writing. It’s weird.


Chris Bertram 03.27.06 at 2:33 pm

If I remember the bit of the novel I read correctly, the family that’s in America is American.

Well not exactly. Father (Howard) is British.


wcw 03.27.06 at 2:55 pm

My wife just finished it for a book club, and she did not make it sound like something I needed to read. Wish I could say more. If it weren’t so thick I’d grind through her copy tonight and report back, but it just doesn’t seem my cup.


JanieM 03.27.06 at 3:03 pm

Chris — thanks for the correction. I will read the book sooner rather than later and get a more considered impression.

I was moved to stop lurking and comment because you asked specifically about people’s reactions to Smith’s “ear,” and that was one of the things that had struck me even in a tiny sampling of the book.

People do seem to differ a lot in how much they are attuned to idiom (linguistic and otherwise). A related observation: in grad school I had a friend from Japan who had studied in the U.S. for a number of years, and she still had a hard time with some aspects of English (e.g. usage of “a,” “an,” and “the”). For years afterwards, she sent me all her Japanese friends who were coming over here to study (also Boston/Cambridge area). They differed wildly in how well they spoke English. They were all highly educated, they had all studied English for years, some of them had been here before, etc., so I always assumed that some of the difference in facility was on the level of inborn talent.


JanieM 03.27.06 at 3:32 pm

By the way, I let a great example go right by me. See the first line of this post: “at the weekend” is not an American usage.

Not that usage and language as a whole aren’t in constant motion. There was a time when “at the end of the day” was clearly British, but it has been adopted in the U.S. long since. There was a time before someone invented “back in the day.” Now it’s everywhere. Etc.

That doesn’t invalidate the general idea of broad brush differences that can grate if an author doesn’t convey them well.


Kramer 03.27.06 at 4:53 pm

re dunno (#2): No we don’t seem that homogenous and that was precisely my point (probably not expressed clearly). I know plenty of folks who’ve lived for parts of their lives either abroad or in parts of the US that they don’t now inhabit but keep expressions from those periods in their every day speech even as their accent and usage generally don’t. I’m imagining, for example, a hypothetical american (now in his 50s) who spent 10 years in his twentys living in England. It seems plausible to me, and it’s certainly my personal experience, that this hypoethetical person might speak in a largely American accent but preserve certain Britishisms.

re janiem (#3): I agree with you about the sort of local usage you describe (e.g. kitchen roll). I’m really talking about more general turns of phrase that won’t tend to get beaten out of you by every day circumstance (i.e. asking for ‘kitchen rolls’ at a store and having everyone look at you like you’re nuts).

Regarding the American family in the book. It’s been a while since I read it, so I may be remembering incorrectly but I think the father of the American family was from England (but had lived in the US the great majority of his adult life) while the mother had grown up in northern Florida speaking an English which was much closer to what might have been spoken in the Carribean than in Cambridge.

(I apologize for partial redundancy with Chris’ post above – which I just saw)


kate 03.28.06 at 10:58 am

I read it for a book club and we all loved it. Now, they are all of the North of Ireland (I am not even going to try and pin down nationality/culture more than that) and I am a yank relocated to a soggy part of the world. However, my mother was born and raised in Wales. I grew up in California. I always spoke slightly differently from my peers, so I have no doubt that having a brit/academic parent would influence how a child/children will talk. (How it will influence my child shall be a developing project).

Anyway, we loved the prose and the conflicted characters. And I believe I came very close to marrying Howard, but ended up with the very tall, very quiet physicist instead.

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