Just Because You’re not From Around Here, Doesn’t Mean You’re a Stranger: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is a novel about skin color, race, perception and, underneath all that, home. Where do you feel most at home? Is it the country, city, house you move from? Or is it the place you move to?

While we may not all be first-generation immigrants in a country, there are certainly times where we feel completely out of place and out of step with the people around us. White Teeth follows two families – two men (one from Bangladesh, the other from England) who meet, become friends and, over the years, marry and expand their families. The story tendrils out, following the men, their wives, and their children’s lives, as well as each family’s history.

I have checked this book out a couple of times in the past, and for some reason, could never bring myself to even open it up. Finally, I was in the mood for it.  I read the first page… then the second, the third… It grabbed me and didn’t let go. Zadie Smith has a very approachable style of writing, without being cheap and overly casual – it’s conversational, you feel as if you’re listening to someone tell a really good story about people she knows. But it is also deeper than that, with rich, developed characters and what-goes-around-comes-around set-ups. This book made me want to underline passages and mark sentences, something I rarely feel the need to do.

A few of my favorite passages from White Teeth:

“It’s just like on TV! And that is the most superlative compliment Archie can think of for any real-life event.”

“But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it’s not like that. It’s never been like that.”

About being irresistible to the opposite sex: “You can’t fight that kid of marvelous indiscriminate power, for it is not always symmetry or beauty per se that does it (Tamara’s nose is ever so slightly bent), and there are no means by which you can gain it. Surely the oldest American sentence is relevant here, pertinent to matters economic, politic, and romantic: you either got it or you don’t. And Millat had it. In spades.

Besides using wonderfully melodic language, I think this novel resonated with me because I am originally from South Florida, born and raised there, but moved to Connecticut in the fall of ’03. And while I am from this country, this coast, I sometimes feel like an outsider here. The culture in Connecticut is different, the weather is different, sometimes the words are different (Tag sale? Yard sale? No! … it’s a garage sale!).

When I first moved here, I had no family in the area, and often felt disconnected, a loose end in life. This book spoke to those feelings and said, ‘Hey, lots of people feel alone for different reasons, but you don’t have to feel that way. You have a history, everyone – regardless of race, age, sex or background – has a history. You can all celebrate that together.’ That’s a very powerful, very comforting thought – that we are all connected by just living our lives.

So… has a book or a story provided you with unexpected comfort or words of wisdom? What phrases have you memorized (or underlined/highlighted) from a story?

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