Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

First line: It was the first day of my humiliation.

Unbelievably, this was my first Zadie Smith. How is that possible? I'm super embarrassed by this fact, but there it is.

The novel is narrated by a young biracial woman, recounting her childhood and early adulthood, and the things -- dance, music, education -- and people -- her mother, best friend, employer -- that shaped the direction of her life.

Passionate about dance, our narrator becomes friends with the only other biracial girl in her dance class, Tracey. Tracey is gifted at dance and her mother eagerly supports her while our narrator's mother is focused on educating herself and achieving personal happiness and success. Our narrator is shuttled to better schools and ends up becoming the assistant to a massive pop celebrity, an experience that changes her life in so many ways.

I liked this book, although I don't think its blurb does it justice -- I really expected a story about two friends -- the narrator and Tracey -- but when our narrator becomes a teen, she and Tracey fall out of touch. I kept waiting for the narrator and Tracey to intersect at some point, especially since the narrator's boss does shows with background dancers, but instead, the novel veers into the pop star's problematic school in Africa.

There are many lovely themes in the novel; Smith touches on unknown dancer Jeni LeGon (fascinating and made me want more dancing/dance history to feature) as well as the implications of class, access, and education. There was clearly something with our narrator remaining unnamed, centered among big personalities such as her mother and her celebrity boss, and yet, she was also on the outer fringe, left out to just observe. I didn't mind that distance, but it did make me feel like I wasn't picking up on something in the story as she seemed to just recount and reminisce.

Gorgeous written, so not a disappointment there. Will obviously be reading more Smith in the future (any recs on what I should pick up next?).

Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / UK / Biracial / Friendship / Coming-of-Age / Dance / Celebrity / Mothers and Daughters)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin Press (11/15/16)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Read Diverse

Comments

  1. I tried one Smith book on audio and just didn't get it. I felt like it was way too smart for me. I wonder if I should try one in print.

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    Replies
    1. This one feels like it'd be a great audiobook since it's just the narrator's POV and she's recounting what happened to her. I just feel like I missed something, but from other reviews, I think it was just not her best.

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  2. I wasn't wild about this book -- it had some beautiful lines and wonderful parts to it, but overall it wasn't quite my cup of tea. Which has kind of been the way with Zadie Smith and me in the past? I really liked her collection of essays, Changing My Mind, for what that's worth.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, folks seem really divided about this one, but I'm definitely going to try her stuff again. I'm not actually a huge essay reader but I think I'll attempt hers because, well, everyone raves about that collection.

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  3. I can recommend NW but other than Swing Time it's the only Smith I've read. NW is more experimental but the narrative works better.

    I felt similarly to you and Jenny about it. Some of it is great (I loved reading about LeGon too, went on a Wikipedia spree after that chapter) and the themes were interesting but I agree with people who said if it was more about Tracey, or she'd been the narrator, it would've been better.

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