English-born Howard Belsey is a art history professor at a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Over the years he has seen his liberal academic values and leftist ideologies slowly eroded in the face of intellectual conservativism, a fact more acutely rendered through the attitudes and opinions of his long-time nemesis Prof. Monty Kipps. Despite his disappointments, Howard is a relatively satisfied man, married to his African-american wife Kiki and loved by his three college-age kids Jerome, Zora and Levi. Yet a shadow closes over Howard's world when Jerome, his oldest, interns at a college in England where he lodges at the Kipps' residence and, in the process, falls head-over-heels in love with the Kipps' daughter Victoria.
Though the budding romance between Jerome and Victoria is soon broken off, aspects of the entanglement have re-engaged Howard with instances from a preferredly forgotten past, one which includes incidents of a particularly distasteful nature between he and Monte Kipps. Now with the Kipps planning a move to America (Monte on a visiting professorship), Howard's world seems to be closing in around him. Compounding the drama in Howard's life, though in a more subversive manner, is the fallout from a one-night stand he'd had with a colleague some months previous, the details of which are now painfully known to Kiki and the children along with a select number of intimate peers and faculty members.
It is from this backdrop that author Zadie Smith, also the writer of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, deftly portrays the intimacies of family situations, relating how the conflicts of relationships and antagonism, race and identity, class and prejudice are all enmeshed in the strata of daily life. Reminiscent of E.M. Forster's Howard's End--Smith apparently adapted aspects of her own novel's key characters from Forster's original two female protagonists--this is a moving novel centered on the complications and comprimises arising out of a growing need for connection in modern life.