Leah’s best friend, Natalie Blake, agrees. Or seems to. She’s done even better than Leah: a law degree and a rich husband, along with children, which Leah keeps pretending she wants, too. Smith draws their get-togethers with careful attention to the subtle stresses and tensions between old friends now separated by class differences that no one wants to acknowledge. Talking to Natalie and her gorgeous husband outside their grand Victorian home, Leah thinks her friends “look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin. . . . This house makes her feel like a child. Cake ingredients and fancy rugs and throw cushions and upholstered chairs in chosen fabrics. Not a futon in sight.”
But when the novel turns its perspective to Natalie, we discover nothing like the self-satisfaction that Leah assumes her friend enjoys. Though Natalie raised herself by concentrated effort into the corporate world — the first in her family to go to college — that status brings her no pleasure and certainly no security. Nothing but constant work can soothe her sorrow, the dark gap she feels between her reputation and who she really is. “Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection,” Smith writes in this relentlessly perceptive analysis. “Left to her own mental devices she quickly spiraled into self-contempt.” At a party, Natalie wishes “she could go to the bathroom and spend the next hour alone with her e-mail.” (I had to keep reminding myself this was London, not Washington.) The conventional markers of success — a high-powered job, attractive children, an expensive house — offer her no sense of authenticity, but “to deviate from them filled her with the old anxiety.” So sympathetically does Smith explore the boundless sadness of Natalie’s life that when she gives an inspirational talk to young black women, all we can hear is the hollowness of her advice: “It was by refusing to set myself artificial limits that I was able to reach my full potential.”
But I’m giving only the barest outline of a complicated novel that’s endlessly fascinating. There’s another part involving Felix, a reformed addict, that’s startling and heartbreaking. His section — really a masterful novella in its own right — seems at first like a lengthy aside from the story of Leah and Natalie, but nothing is accidental in this tale of collision and ambition. Later, Felix shows up again, glancingly, in a crucial moment of thoughtless betrayal that resounds with all the moral amplitude of this remarkable novel.
The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you’ve felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate. While her own voice can seem crisp and clinical, it’s tinged with irony, and her dialogue ripples off the page in full stereo, whether she’s recording whole speeches or weaving together snippets of overlapping chitchat at a party that conveys, despite its apparent superficiality, a whole class of attitudes about the world.
As I’ve suggested, you either submit to Smith’s eclectic style or you set this book aside in frustration. At times, reading “NW” is like running past a fence, catching only strips of light from the scene on the other side. Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader — or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you’re willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you’ll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.