White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth delves into family history and dynamics: an unlikely friendship between two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, and how this brought their families together. It explores what it’s like to be a person of color in London from the 70s to the 90s (though I am guessing even until today). It is the kind of book I’d recommend to readers who are more invested in characters than the plot, those who want to understand why people-are-that-way and who do not mind the lack of action in a book.

It took me a bit longer than usual to sort out my feelings about White Teeth.

I read this book based on a recommendation by someone in my professional network. This was one of three fiction books in a list of ten books, so I felt that the book would at least expand my reading horizons. It did; I have no regrets.

To be truthful, I didn’t love It

A lot of time was spent dwelling on a past that no one but Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal was interested in even as the decades went by. I get it: it was the past that brought them together, but couldn’t they make more, newer memories as time went by?

And then we meet another family so different that they have their own -isms. They were a model family, a “normal” family who didn’t feel the need to talk about the past all the time. It feels a bit unnatural, but it’s a nice break it is to spend time with them. (They somewhat reminded me of the Murphy family of Dear Evan Hansen.)

On the other hand, I didn’t hate it

It is 95% into the (e)book when we have the long-awaited outburst, slapping everyone in the face and putting things into perspective. The history of two families finally comes full circle with an event that shakes the Jones-Iqbal friendship to the core. And so we ask: Will their friendship survive? Does one moment in history matter more than the history that was built thereafter?

Well, you decide because the story ends there.

But let’s talk about the characters

I mentioned earlier that this is a book for people who get invested in characters. In my case, there were three characters I developed an appreciation for:

  • Alsana Iqbal: One would think that just because she had an arranged marriage, she would be a meek character. She is not. Alsana Iqbal has a strong personality and understands that society changes. She has an interesting (and somewhat funny) relationship with her Niece-of-Shame and is unafraid of exasperating her husband (maybe, Samad Iqbal, but maybe not.) when she is not happy with him, showing that she is not a stereotypical submissive Asian housewife.
  • Irie Jones: This one is a personal connection because, yes, Irie, I feel you. I know how it’s like when your hair has its own mind and refuses to be tamed. Also, you hustle but are still underappreciated, but, girl, you’ll make it out alive. (Eventually, you’ll come to terms with your hair, too.)
  • Archie Jones: Despite his stuck-in-the-past attitude, Archie is calm throughout the years. He’s not caught up with making a mark or being remembered; he just goes with the flow. Through his indecision, you will see he is not vain and does not play God—things aren’t just black or white—and I respect that.

Of course, affinity to characters varies from reader to reader (I seem to never have the same favorite characters as my friends). The great thing about White Teeth is that there are so many things going on that everyone’s bound to have different favorite characters and different feelings about the book.

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