Does it sometimes occur that you get invited to a party that you really don’t want to go to because you don’t know anybody there but your partner entreats you to make an effort and you discover that the hosts don’t speak much English and it’s in a shabby part of town and it’s promising to be a long and boring affair? But you go anyway, dragging your feet and mumbling under your breath because he insists on being punctual when you know nobody will arrive before the appointed hour. But in the end, you really had a good time and happy that you went and even stayed well after the party was supposed to be over?

This was the case with Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” I had never heard of this writer and this was the first novel she wrote when she was in her early 20’s. As first novels go, this one is a tour de force — ambitious, far-encompassing, heartfelt, and full of humor. Smith takes two guys who have nothing in common with each other and places them in a drab north London suburb and breathes life into them, giving them ancestors, wives, children, and such trials and tribulations that as readers you can’t but feel sympathy for them. Smith’s narrative travels from India to Jamaica to Pakistan to London and back again, in witty English as well as dubitable dialects, like someone who can both tell jokes and mime.

But then something curious happens. You realize that a lot of time has gone by but the event is slow to get off the ground. So what if these people are really nice and funny and entertaining but the clock is ticking along and there is no end in sight? Smith’s book is a whopping 550 pages printed in size two font, and after page 246 you’re beginning to feel party fatigue as when you’re listening to one person speak for too long and laugh too loud while wondering where this is all headed.

Yet you’re curious so you hang around, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the night, hoping that in the end there will finally be a point to this novel and that you will have had a grand time after all.

There is and you will, but be armed with lots of humor and patience.

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
550 pages

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