Did You Read Her Last One?

A brief guide to faking knowledge of British author Zadie Smith

October 17, 2012

Zadie Smith, author of “NW,” grew up in Northwest London herself.

Zadie Smith, one of the western world’s most prominent young novelists, has a new book out: “NW.” There’s no way you’ll have time to finish it before her reading Thursday, so we consulted expert Dan Wilbur, author of “How Not to Read” and curator of the blog Better Book Titles, to help you chat intelligently with the cute lit nerds you’ll meet.

“Double down,” is Wilbur’s first piece of advice. “Say you read someone in-the-know who said this isn’t her best [work], and you don’t have time.”

If you do decide to pretend you finished Smith’s book (though you only heard about it on NPR), he suggests using the term “character-driven,” because everything is. You can also get evasive and say that the book brought up a lot of emotions you’d rather not get into. Or, check out our guide to her books to get some credibility.

‘White Teeth’

If people have read one book by Zadie Smith, it’s usually 2000’s “White Teeth.” Her first novel, it put her on the literary map — placing her squarely in Britain, where the country’s colonial history adds nuance to the book’s interfamily interactions.
Plot: Three families’ stories intertwine: Archie Jones and his younger Jamaican wife struggle to raise their daughter, Irie, while Islamic immigrant Samad Iqbal finds his twin sons taking his Muslim faith and running in opposite directions with it, influenced by the would-be intellectual Chalfen family.
But What’s It Really About? Post-colonial Britain is a web of intersecting societies and conflicting identities. Smith explores some of those complexities and also satirizes them, exploring familial loyalties and how easily they are broken.

‘On Beauty’

Smith’s third major work, 2005’s “On Beauty” is a comic academic novel — but that term doesn’t do it justice. Her story of Howard, a deeply flawed professor with a complicated marriage, is compassionate without losing its satirical edge.
Plot: Howard, a liberal professor, and his family live near Boston, where he teaches at Wellington College, which is totally not based on Harvard at all. His rivalry with an extremely conservative colleague causes havoc in the family.
But What’s It Really About? Smith’s favorite themes — multiracial families, insecure intellectuals and their rivalries, and the search for ethnic identity — all make appearances.

‘NW’

You might think you’ll understand “NW” because, “Hey, I work in NW!” But Smith’s title actually refers to northwest London. The writing style is a departure for her: The book is divided into four sections, each with a distinct writing style and focused on a different protagonist from the fictional housing project of Caldwell.
Plot: Four kids who grew up in North West London — Felix, Leah, Nathan and Natalie — grow into very different people and try to navigate adulthood.
But What’s It Really About? The way living in a city can be both isolating and intrusive at the same time — and the way your childhood never leaves you completely, no matter how much you’d like it to.

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., $27; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)
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Katie Aberbach · October 17, 2012