“White Teeth” is set in an England still jolted by the disasters of the Blitz and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and it’s about six years before the dazzling “On Beauty” kicks off Zadie Smith’s trilogy of discomfiting and consequential novels. Still, like the U.K. and Africa to which it was dedicated, “White Teeth” could hardly be more familiar.
“So why are we writing about this here?” A character asks. “Why, this place? What am I writing about?” This also could serve as a description of the novel’s title, which may be the name of a character’s nickname or of the banality of this America.
Set over a long summer week, “White Teeth” moves easily between two continents and covers both continents in a single story. As such, it’s unremittingly unremarkable: It’s about four women, each of whom is afflicted with an illness brought about by overwhelming socioeconomic conditions. Each is bewildered and resigned, doubting their own worth, questioning the worth of her and her companion. Each comes to her boyfriend’s edge of despair only to remain there, wanting to change but unable to. Each makes her own pained, uncaring decisions. Each will become a person with completely unexpected but ultimately defensible choices.
The narrator is a celebrity, one with a creepy management company. She has built a career out of kissing men to advertise various products, and has come to the town of Cornwall at a time when she could use the money. It’s also a town many years away from the strain of AIDS. Men are so attracted to her looks that they lose themselves in her; every day they make unasked, unclaimed advances that enrage her. She is effectively neutered; she isn’t handsome, but she is a strong presence, vivacious and smart and really listening.
On the first day in Cornwall, she shows up to a party in a silly hat and a white wedding dress. She finds herself immersed in a world in which ordinary people are brilliant, honest and open, and she is treated as a treasure by everyone she meets. Everyone except her father. “Two hundred journalists followed him around,” the narrator observes. “That amount was far greater than his fans ever cared to know. No one liked him. I don’t think anyone did, really.”
Every day, she invites a friend over for a drink, and every day that friend is horribly superior to her. She tells the hostess to shut up and that she’s just acting eccentric. She’s all banter and dance, and the hostess coldly switches to a discussion of Shakespeare. She’s invited to a star-studded brunch at which everyone looks beautiful and intelligent, and her presence only reminds everyone of how average she is.
Meanwhile, the narrator’s boyfriend is having a hard time. He is cast down by life and not given many chances to prove himself. He has lost his boyfriend, and his father is dying. He has a job he hates, and he sleeps with the waitress in his gated apartment complex. These are not minor issues; not in these circumstances. The central characters in “White Teeth” are flawed, familiar and increasingly difficult to understand. The fix comes slowly and with uncommon complexity.
Patience pays off. Smith has worked to make a novel that is not easy to read, but even when it’s unreadable, it’s impossible to look away. By the end, the reader’s patience has been rewarded.