Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | Reviews

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

By Doug Ward

The trade book buyer for University Book Stores, Doug Ward says that reading is such a necessity, he goes for longer without a meal than a book. He’s currently consumed by his advance copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (Penguin Press).

Why did you choose it?

In my job, I can’t possibly read all of the books I want to, but I make an exception for Zadie Smith’s novels. She exhibits a keen awareness of our increasingly multicultural existence and never shies away from poking (or poking fun at) the inherent hypocrisies in our world. Smith’s stories aren’t ones you read and forget—they affect your attitudes and perceptions and change your view of society and our political systems.  

What’s it about?

A 21st century update of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, On Beauty is a humorous and thoughtful look into a racially mixed family’s many gyrations to successfully navigate life. Art, religion, and politics clash with issues of identity, conscience, teenage rebellion, and mid-life crisis.

What do you like most about it?

On Beauty asks its characters—and readers—to examine the tenets upon which their lives are structured. As a reader, I’m simultaneously privy to the characters’ reality and cognizant of how their motivations mirror my own life. Smith demonstrates that life is not approachable on any meaningful, fulfilling level if we allow ourselves to take shortcuts via stereotypes and broad generalizations. Despite obvious differences, people have more similarities than are possible to contemplate. Smith’s language is also very approachable. It’s not flowery or rife with useless metaphor and simile—she tells a plain and simple tale.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

Feuds, infidelity, death, love—what more could you ask for in 300-plus pages? Smith makes you laugh at yourself and take stock of your approach to the world. Conflicts are both anticipated and shocking; resolutions are satisfying yet dubious. The humor is dark at times, guffaw-inducing at others. On Beauty is one of only three books this year that endure in the crowded memory of this professional reader.