Number of pages: 446
Despite my enjoyment of Zadie Smith's other books, and the fact that this seems to be regarded as her magnum opus, I was initially reluctant to read this book, as the title didn't interest me. When I read the plot, I got more intrigued and was lucky to find this book selling cheaply in a secondhand bookshop.
The story revolves around the fortunes of two families - the Belseys and the Kipps', both living in New England. One of the central characters, Howard Belsey, is a professor at local university, and it becomes clear quite early on that Howard has had an affair with one of his colleagues, but his wife Kiki does not kick him out, determined to allow their marriage to endure despite his infidelity.
There are several other plot strands in the story, including a student named Carl who, despite clearly being gifted, has no educational qualifications, and the struggle by Howard's daughter to allow Carl to stay on the university course he is attending, while others want him to be thrown out. I wasn't surprised to see that there was a lot of social commentary based around both politics and race.
I really enjoyed this book, and certainly think it's the best Zadie Smith novel I've read, possibly because I found it easier to read than some of her other novels. Howard was definitely the most interesting character for me, as he seemed to be constantly responsible for sabotaging his own personal life. Towards the end, it felt like there might be no happy ending at all, although the final pages did provide some hope at least for one character. The book's ending seemed very open to interpretation, and rather than having a neat conclusion, the book went for something more unconventional, and it seemed that it was up to the reader to choose what happened to the characters afterwards.
I certainly found this very thought provoking, particularly the issue of allowing an intelligent student to stay at university despite not having qualifications, and I also wondered if the beauty of the title referred to inner, rather than outward beauty.
This definitely deserved to read the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Next book: Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay