The book is loosely based on Howards End by E. M. Forster, and has been described by Zadie Smith as an "homage" to Forster's novel. Parallels include the opening sections (Howards End begins with letters from Helen to her sister, On Beauty with emails from Jerome to his father), the bequeathing of a valuable item to a member of the other family (the Wilcox house Howards End is left by Ruth Wilcox to Margaret Schlegel; Carlene leaves Kiki a painting), and more broadly the idea of two families with very different ideas and values gradually becoming linked.
The setting of much of the novel, the fictitious Wellington College and surrounding community, contains many close parallels to the real Harvard University and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smith wrote part of the novel as a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute.
Smith gives herself a very brief Hitchcock-style cameo in the novel: the narrator (or, indirectly, Howard) describes her as a "feckless novelist", visiting fellow of the fictional Wellington faculty, as Smith was of Harvard's, who is quick to abandon a tedious meeting.