It’s not meant for me to read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
I was working at Borders (moment of silence for my favorite former workplace) twenty years ago when Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was flying off the shelves. There were stacks and displays of it throughout the store. People who navigated without the white cane that the visually impaired use to walk around were oblivious to the cover that blared WHITE TEETH in bold, white, and all caps lettering came to the Info Desk asking for it.
I usually avoid reading new bestsellers. In many cases, it’s a popularity contest versus being an actual, good book. I sometimes end up disappointed, as was the case with books like Girl on the Train and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Curious about the White Teeth, I borrowed it–a perk of being a bookstore employee. Me being me, Book ADD kicked in and I never got around to reading it and returned it. The universe protecting me? I thought about it over the years, especially as Smith published other books, but I never doubled back.
Cut to a few weeks ago, @dishing.on.books, an account I follow on Instagram (absolutely gorgeous grid with books as table place settings and creative book write-ups that she describes as meals) announced that she was co-hosting a readathon and giveaway of three Zadie Smith novels: White Teeth, NW, and On Beauty (which was gifted to me over a decade ago). Now was my chance to give this acclaimed writer the attention she deserved.
The Sunday before the readathon was to begin, I donned a dress, snatched my library copy of White Teeth and took myself to brunch. Brunch with a book. The book started with a bang. So much so that long after I’d paid the bill for my fried eggs, sausage, cheesy grits, mimosa, and Sangria, I stayed put to continue reading at the makeshift outdoor dining shack across from the Bed-Stuy brick-and-mortar restaurant as this pandemic rages on and I don’t (can’t) do indoor dining thanks to the New York mandate.
The opening scene is a failed suicide attempt by Archie Jones, one of the main characters of the novel. His plan is to suffocate in his car by attaching a vacuum hose to the exhaust pipe, but he gets asked to move his car. Of course as a reader, I’d like to know why Archie wants to leave this earth.
Then it happened. I hit a wall. I can’t quite pinpoint why I stopped vibing with novel, but the interest just wasn’t there. The book is well-written. I’m not intimidated by thick books with small font. I read the 1000+-page unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables by choice. I contacted my readathon host:
Leah! I'm so sad.
I'm not enjoying White Teeth
I am 100+ pages in & extremely bored. I might have to quit the readathon, at least for this book.😢
I betrayed myself by even making it to the hundreds. My general rule is to give a book 50 pages. If, when I’m not reading, I’m not daydreaming about jumping back into its pages, we are not a match. That was the case with White Teeth, but I wanted to participate in my first readathon. I admitted my struggle, but said, and did, switch to the audiobook. Didn’t help. Without shame I told the rest of the book club members that I had officially DNF’d (did not finish), but wanted to hop on the Zoom call anyway to hear their perspectives and to see what I might be missing.
The evening of the zoom call there were only a few of us online. I had changed my mind to just hop on to say a quick hello and put a face the Instagram handles I’d been reading in the group chat. I stayed on for the whole hour. My best contribution was that I found both Archie and Samad to be pathetic but lovable characters in the vane of Homer Simpson, especially Archie. That elicited some laughter and agreements. I imagined Archie to be a bit on the pudgy side, wore short-sleeved button-down shirts and had thinning hair. Though Samad Iqbal is a Bangladeshi immigrant, my mind’s eye kept picturing a Black man. Not until switching over to the audiobook did I start picturing him in the troublesome (read: racist) image of Apu, also from the series The Simpsons. Representation matters!
I really tried to hang in there to read about the families of the former World War II military buddies. After his botched suicide attempt because of his divorce, Archie went on to marry Clara, a Jamaican-English woman several years his junior who was recovering from her own heartbreak when she agreed to the union. Samad and Alsana are unhappily married. The wives become pregnant at the same time. Alsana with twin boys, Clara with a girl.
The novel jumped from pregnancy to the boys being teens and huge disappointments to Samad. “What had gone wrong with these first descendants of the first ocean-crossing experiment?” I wanted to hang in there long enough to read about Clara’s daughter (of course I wanted to read about the experience of a young black girl), but I was literally bored to tears. Nope, not a figure of speech. I kept yawning while reading. The repeated yawning made my eyes water. Lying on my back on the couch, the tears skied into my ears, tickling them.
My TBR (to be read) pile requires several lifetimes to ever get through it. I had to let it go. Reading should not feel like a chore.