A reader's guide to On Beauty

Updated Wednesday, 1st November 2006
Zadie Smith attempts a tribute to EM Forster - but can she add her own voice to the mix?

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Zadie Smith This year’s Orange Prize was won by Zadie Smith for her third novel On Beauty. In her Acknowledgements Smith praises E.M. Forster, stating that all of her fiction is indebted to him. On Beauty is specifically a tribute to Howards End, which we featured as last month’s book on the Forum, so we now have an ideal opportunity to explore the two texts alongside each other.

Both portray contrasting family groups: in Howards End the Schlegels represent different values from the Wilcoxes; in Smith’s On Beauty the clash is between the Belsey and Kipps families.

Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps are rival academics and Rembrandt specialists, teaching at a university that is suspiciously similar to Harvard. Their wives, Kiki and Carlene, mirror Margaret Schlegel and Mrs Wilcox. Whilst the house at Howards End is at the heart of Forster’s novel, Smith’s features a valuable painting.

Indeed a number of parallel characters and situations can be traced, and it has been suggested that modern-day America is analogous to Forster’s Edwardian England.

It will be interesting to discuss readers’ reactions to On Beauty: some may marvel at Smith’s achievement; others may feel that it is unreasonable to ‘borrow’ ideas from another author in this way.

My own reaction to On Beauty is one of admiration. I am a fan of EM Forster’s writing, but I also appreciate Smith’s skill in creating such a vibrant, colourful novel. On Beauty has a range of extremely engaging characters; Smith tackles important contemporary issues, and her book definitely merits consideration in its own right.


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