On Beauty

On Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part I: Kipps and Belsey (Chapters 1-6)

Summary (pg. 3-68)

The story opens directly on a series of emails exchanged between a boy named Jerome Belsey, and his father Howard Belsey, who is evidently a professor at a university called Wellington. Jerome is interning abroad in England, in the office of a man named Monty Kipps. Jerome’s first email details his office internship work, and this email also establishes that he and his father have some sort of problematic relationship. The Kippses are a Caribbean family. Jerome has not only been working for Monty, but living with the Kippses as well, and has taken a strong liking to the wife, Carlene. Carlene has been helping Jerome pray, apparently something that is frowned upon in the Belsey household. The end of this email also reveals that Monty Kipps and Howard Belsey have some kind of feud over public debates and writings, and Jerome urges his father to forget this feud, which is just a waste of energy.

The next email details more of Jerome’s adventures and good times with the Kippses. Jerome seems to be emphasizing the positive aspects of the Kippses, and the negative aspects of the Belseys, such as a perceived lack of “logic” in the Belsey family. In the postscript section, Jerome responds to his father’s inquiry about whether or not Jerome is still a virgin, and the tone here is rather begrudging and irritated. In the next, short email, Jerome says that the Kippses’ daughter Victoria, who was previously inter-railing in Europe, has just come home, and that she and Jerome have fallen in love. Jerome is going to propose to her, and believes she will say yes; he asks his parents to mail him, since his phone is now out of credit.

After this series of emails, shown only from Jerome’s point of view, the story shifts into current time in America, in Wellington. Howard Belsey has printed out Jerome’s emails and is showing them to his wife, Kiki. Kiki is African-American, while Howard is white and originally from England. Howard and Kiki have a strange and slightly strained relationship, and Howard is also clearly upset that of all the girls in the world, Jerome is proposing to the daughter of a man he hates. Kiki believes that Jerome is simply trying to catch his father’s attention. The cleaner, Monique, a Haitian woman, comes in to do her duty, and is let in by the Belseys’ middle child, their daughter Zora. Zora, as mentioned in one of Jerome’s emails, is a current student at Wellington College, where her father teaches. Faced with Monique’s interruption, Kiki tells her to start in the study; she feels nervous as she, a black woman, pays another black woman to clean her house.

The youngest Belsey child, a sixteen-year-old named Levi, arrives on the scene after hearing mention of the name “Kipps.” Levi has a faux Brooklyn accent, and dresses in what he believes to be “street” vogue in hip-hop culture. Kiki has to continually remind both Zora and Levi to get to their classes. Suddenly, the argument between Kiki and Howard about what they should do about Jerome and Victoria reaches a head about a conference in Michigan. Although at this time it is unclear why this conference in Michigan is so important, Howard is clearly guilty of something, and this particular argument is pushed off for later.

After the children leave, Kiki and Howard eye each other warily. The narrator describes Kiki as a large black woman, tough, and with a beautiful face, although she was once thin and small. Howard, who is presenting a paper in Cambridge next week, says he can fly to London early to see Jerome. Kiki insists that Jerome can marry whom he wants to, but Howard begins his plans for flying out, anyways.

The history and description of the Belsey residence is given. An important fact of its current residence is that this house was originally Kiki’s family’s house, passed through the hands of the women of that family. While Kiki’s mother, Claudia Simmonds, owned the house, she rented it out to cycles of students, and Howard coveted it and waited for it to one day be his. Ten years prior to the current time of the story, Kiki and Howard finally received the house.

In this very house now on a Saturday, Howard calls his friend and colleague Erskine Jegede, the Assistant Director of the Black Studies Department. Erskine and Howard are kindred spirits, and often share with each other their annoyance at their colleagues. They discuss the outrage of Howard and Jerome’s situation, with one of the reasons for dislike of Monty Kipps is revealed: Kipps, while himself black, is a staunch conservative, and seen as retrogressive by the Nigerian Erskine and the progressive Howard. Howard prepares to leave for England, and converses with Levi as he leaves. They talk about Levi’s job at a music mega-store. Another Haitian worker, a cabbie named Pierre, drives Howard to the airport.

Kiki returns to the house after Howard leaves. She peeks first into her husband’s study, and hears an email come in to the computer. It is a new email from Jerome, with an urgent and short message saying that he has made a fool for himself and the engagement is all over. Kiki curses, since Howard has never owned a cell phone and has already left.

Upon arriving in England, Howard struck by how much this city he once knew has changed. He recalls the source of the feud between Monty Kipps and himself: both men, concerned with the artist Rembrandt, have very different views. Whereas Howard has been working on his book for a long while now, Kipps recently published his book, which was an instant popular and academic success. Howard had written a scathing response to this book, but mistakenly wrote about the wrong painting, and Kipps’ equally scathing reply to this has stung Howard for months. Howard calls the Kipps residence, and is begrudgingly picked up by the Kippses’ only other child, their older son Michael. On the way to the Kippses’ residence, Howard realizes that Michael never knew about any sort of “engagement” between Jerome and Victoria; in fact, Michael grows furious about the idea that Jerome might have “touched” Victoria at all. The two men barge into the house, where Michael puts Jerome up against the wall. Carlene Kipps proves to be a calm and kind woman, who mediates the emotional conflicts; it is resolved that Jerome will leave in the morning. Monty Kipps is fortunately out in the garden.

Nine months later, it is August in Wellington, and Kiki tries to convince the ever-sulky Jerome to accompany her to the summer outdoor town festival. Jerome, still weighed down by his heartbreak, is scrawling in his journal. He had lost his virginity to Victoria, who had used him as entertainment, while Jerome had thought of their relations way too seriously. The narrator also reveals that the reference to the conference in Michigan is about an extramarital affair that Howard had, hence the strain and tension in their marriage. Jerome finally agrees to go with his mother to the festival. They browse the stands, where Kiki talks with a Haitian man about earrings, and about the country he comes from. Jerome runs off to get a burrito. Kiki runs into family friends Claire Malcolm and Warren Crane, a white couple. Claire is a friend of Howard’s from graduate school, a renowned poet who also teaches at Wellington. Warren and Claire have finally married. As they banter and chat, Claire lets slip that Monty Kipps will soon be coming to Wellington, and will be given an office in the Black Studies Department. Both Kiki and Jerome are surprised and upset by this. After Warren and Claire leave quickly and awkwardly, the Belsey mother and son discuss Kippses’ new appointment, after which Jerome also sulkily weaves through the crowd without his mother.

After Howard learns about Monty Kipps’ appointment, a dark mood falls over the house. Jerome comes up with the idea of going in to Boston to listen to an outdoor Mozart concert together. The family packs into a cab and goes to Boston. Walking to the outdoor concert area, Howard reveals that he is a humorous man, making his family laugh, and making Levi embarrassed enough to meander to the concert by himself. They run into Howard’s colleagues Erskine Jegede and Jack French, the latter of whom is the Dean of the Humanities Faculty. They talk about academia, and Kiki stops the conversation from veering too negatively by inviting the two other professors to her and Howard’s anniversary party in a week and a half.


A strong narrator’s voice is adopted at the beginning of the story, as the book opens with the line: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” (3). However, readers may soon realize that this tone does not dominate the rest of the book, and is more often used to push the story along. The emails are a particularly interesting place to begin. As plot material, Jerome’s emails reveal a lot of information in clever, indirect ways. For example, his opening lines of “Hey, Dad – basically I’m just going to keep on keeping on with these mails – I’m no longer expecting you to reply, but I’m still hoping you will, if that makes sense” (3) immediately reveal that there is something problematic about this father-son relationship. More explicitly, later in the email Jerome capitalizes “together” and “whole family” and asks his father “are you taking notes?” which instantly reveals that perhaps there are more problems in the Belsey family than simply between Jerome and Howard. Jerome’s email interestingly uses “Dear Dr Belsey!” as its greeting, while the others have all used some form of “Dad.” This last email is strikingly different from the other ones, which is what most likely prompts Kiki to believe that Jerome is simply clamoring for his father’s attention.

The England-American divide is also an issue, set up very early on in this first chapter. Of all the places Jerome could be working, he has chosen to leave his American school and childhood, and work in an office in London (and of all places, at his father’s rival’s office). Now, as Howard and Kiki look over Jerome’s emails in the kitchen, the narrator again specifies that Howard Belsey “directed his American wife, Kiki Simmonds, to the relevant section of the email he had printed out” (7), a stark reminder that this marriage has crossed a geographical boundary as well as a racial gap. During this breakfast, father and younger son Levi “choreograph a breakfast in speechless harmony” (8), an image probably not too foreign to many families, with speechlessness being a manifestation of familiarity; however, this “silent choreography” of actions is something that contains an element of near oppressiveness in the Belsey household, as tensions between all members seem to emerge in this first glimpse at their inner lives.

The narrator, in revealing that Kiki is African-American, uses the phrase of a “sphinx-like expression,” one that “sometimes induced their American friends to imagine a more exotic provenance for her than she actually possessed. In fact she was from simple Florida country stock” (8). This duality of “exoticness” and “simple stock” is a duality that is relevant for the entire novel, but is also rhetoric that conjures up a rich and problematic history. Most black characters in this novel are either African-American (descended from American slaves) or instead are of Caribbean heritage. The history of exoticizing non-whites, particularly Caribbean people, is very much existent, and also in strong contrast against the simple condemnation and degradation of American-descended blacks. Using “simple stock” to describe Kiki is a reminder of her enslaved ancestors.

When these two black narratives cross paths with Monique’s entrance, Kiki immediately feels uncomfortable, “nervous of what this black woman thought of another black woman paying her to clean” (11). Furthermore, the black American narrative is carried through Kiki and onto her son Levi in particular, who is introduced as a hip-hop loving adolescent who wears traditional hip-hop culture garb, and speaks with a faux Brooklyn accent.

Kiki’s physical description is also striking and important: she wears her hair in “two thick ropes of plait that reached to her backside, like a ram’s unwound horns” (14). The imagery of the ram adds power to Kiki’s appearance, and this is only intensified by the fact that she is now “a solid two hundred and fifty pounds, and looked twenty years [Howard’s] junior” (14).

Howard is never physically described, but his character is obliquely described through his interactions with other people. The first of these given at length is Howard’s relationship with Erskine Jegede, his colleague, and how both men seek comfort in each other. After calling Erskine, Howard sets off to leave for England, but finds himself detained by Levi for a moment first. Levi is set up in stark contrast to Jerome; he even says of his older brother, “he can’t find his dick with two hands” (22), which reminds Howard of his own disappointment in his older son, in Jerome’s excessive innocence. As Howard sets off, he is struck by the idea that he could “no longer gauge the luxuries of his own life” (25), an idea that is repeated throughout the novel, that it is difficult to see into an individual or a family’s inner life; that attempted objective perception is always warped in some way.

This idea comes into play as soon as Howard meets Michael Kipps in London; Howard notes how apparently noble the young man is, and when Michael talks to Howard about his closeness with his own father, there is a faint reminder of Jerome’s emails about the togetherness of the Kipps family. Howard carries this vague perception of the Kipps family as they journey to the house together, and yet many aspects of this soon become ironic. Michael believes his sister is a virgin, but soon it is revealed to readers that Victoria is by no means a virgin. Carlene Kipps is kind and peace-making even as her son Michael yells at Howard and violently pushes Jerome against a wall. There is actually just as much distance between members of the Kipps family as there is between the Belsey individuals, but this is not ye completely perceived.

Nine months later, the narrator reveals that Howard had been unfaithful to Kiki: “If you’d told Kiki a year ago, Your husband will screw somebody else, you will forgive him, you will stay, she wouldn’t have believed it. You can’t say how these things will feel, or how you will respond, until they happen to you” (43). The use of the second-person “you” also extends an offer of the possibility of empathy to readers. Right afterwards, the narrator tells readers that “Kiki had drawn upon reserves of forgiveness that she didn’t even know she had. But for Jerome, friendless and brooding, it was clear that one week with Victoria Kipps, nine months ago, had expanded in his mind until it now took up all the space in his life” (43). This story, which often takes the close-third-person point of view of different characters at different times, explores deeply the differences in perception and reaction of the two genders. Thus, Kiki’s reserves of forgiveness are juxtaposed with Jerome’s friendless brooding, one example of how one woman and one man react so differently to heartbreak.

This situation is also unique because Jerome did not only fall in love with a girl—he also “had fallen in love with a family” (44). The clear contrast of the two families—explicitly reflected in the title of this section, “Kipps and Belsey”—offers a meditation on whether there is any sort of moral “right” or “wrong.” The Kippses are religious and conservative; the Belseys are non-religious and politically liberal. Jerome, naturally disposed to the former combination of views, has nonetheless been born into the Belsey family, which he must cope with to his best ability. Yet neither of these ideologies or ways of functioning is “correct”; they are simply ways of being a family.

The relation of both genders to sex is also important to the story. At the town festival, the significance of Kiki’s physicality, particularly her large breasts, is noted. While talking there to family friend Warren, the idea of the “sexual universe” is invoked: “when you are no longer in the sexual universe, when you are supposedly too old, or too big, or simply no longer thought of in that way—apparently a whole new range of male reactions to you come into play” (51). Kiki, while sexual, is no longer in the sexual universe. She is also a far cry, physical-appearance-wise, from what she used to be when she first married Howard. The entrance and exit to this abstract “sexual universe” will be relevant to every character, but particularly female ones, these including Kiki and Carlene, and their respective daughters Zora and Victoria. Even Claire Malcolm will be thought of in relation to her sexuality. The idea that women are thought of only in relation to their sexuality is never explicitly stated, but is implied throughout the story.

Claire Malcolm is set up as an almost physical opposite to Kiki: short, white and thin, “physically prepubescent…made with the minimum of material” (51). After Claire and Warren reveal the information about Monty Kippses’ imminent arrival at Wellington, Jerome is furious and upset. He rhetorically asks his mother if he is just meant to sit around “like an asshole—pretend nothing happened, is that it?” to which his mother responds: “No, it means we’ll deal with it politely as a family who—” (59). “Asshole” seems juxtaposed to someone who is active: an asshole will passively accept, ignore and/or forgive, and in doing so, cause even more pain. Kiki’s passionate expression is cut short, leaving the word “family” at the end even more naked and painful, since the Belsey family cannot even deal with their own intrafamilial issues in a polite way.

When the Belseys head to the Mozart concert, Levi tells his family about what it means to be “street,” saying that places like Boston and Wellington “ain’t America. You think this is America? This is toy-town. I was born in this country—trust me. You go into Roxbury, you go into the Bronx, you see America. That’s street” (63). Levi’s ironic, even humorous, personal beliefs that he, the son of an art history professor in the suburbs, is part of “street” culture, are met by his sister’s equally biting commentary. Zora says, “Levi, you don’t live in Roxbury…You live in Wellington…You’ve got your name ironed into your underwear” and also, “in Levi’s sad little world if you’re a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners” (63). Zora’s sarcastic and humorous rebuttals to her brother’s stunted ideas of “blackness” are, in fact, remarkable in how they parse derivative pathways of American “blackness.” Even though the Belsey children are half-white, by virtue of having a black mother they are African-American, and they are black, albeit light-skinned. Furthermore, understanding what it means to “be black,” especially in America, requires recognizing the “street” culture in traditionally poorer neighborhoods like Roxbury or the Bronx. Levi’s opting to “go this path” of blackhood is not active rejection of his father’s lofty academic life, or even of Jerome’s intellectual pursuits, but in many ways is a rejection all the same. However, he finds it extremely difficult to reconcile his own suburban world with the “real blackness” he finds on the city streets.