Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This has been one of the hardest posts I’ve written since starting my blog. This book has stalled my reading and blogging, so I’m glad to click “publish” today! I have to admit – I was relieved when I finished Swing Time. I usually love Zadie Smith and kept waiting for things come together, but this just didn’t work for me. I don’t want to use my blog to bash books and I firmly believe that there is someone for every book, so here’s a quick synopsis of the plot, which I hope will give you an idea whether or not it’s for you.

All of the descriptions of this book mention that it’s about two girls that love to dance, but one wasn’t quite good enough to keep going. And then the descriptions get even more vague. I think it’s because the plot was difficult to follow. The chapters alternated between present day and the 80s (I think it was the 80s?) and is narrated by a young bi-racial woman who grew up in London. The unnamed narrator’s Jamaican mother worked hard to put herself through school and to make a difference in her community, and pushed the narrator to focus on academics despite her love for singing and dancing. The main character (MC) and Tracey met in a community dance class as children and the relationship never goes away, despite the ups and downs of being frenemies.  When Tracey was accepted to a performing arts high school and the MC wasn’t even encouraged to audition, their paths began to cross less and less.

As an adult, the MC works in music media and ends up being hired by Aimee – a pop star from her childhood who continues to make hits and wants to spend her money doing “good” things, despite how misguided her ideas sometimes are. Think Madonna, I guess. Aimee’s latest venture is starting a school for girls in West Africa and the MC lives a jet-setting life and moves between London, New York, and the village in West Africa while trying to negotiate her strained relationship with her mother, who is now an elected politician in her old neighborhood.

Always in a supporting role, the MC is constantly reacting instead of acting. This novel played with a lot of difficult themes – racial identity, class identity, married vs. unmarried, with child vs. childless. There are insinuations of incest and how that affects children as they become adults. There was so much ground to cover in this book and all of the ingredients for an amazing novel were here, I just think it needed a little longer in the oven for everything to come together a bit better.

If, like me, you’re a Zadie Smith completist, then you’ll want to read this book (of course!). If you are interested in racial politics and identity, then you’ll also probably want to read this book. If you enjoy books with flashbacks, themes involving dancing or old musicals, reading about rural communities in developing nations, or about women passionate about politics or sociological issues, then this is worth picking up and testing the waters (through the library!)

If you haven’t read any Zadie Smith I don’t want to discourage you from trying any of her books! She’s truly a wonderful writer and I would encourage you to start with White Teeth and then move to NW — her best two novels, in my humble opinion.

Have you read this one? What did you think? Am I missing something important?

And — do you blog about books that weren’t for you? I felt guilty writing this post, but have a goal to blog about each book that I finish this year. Normally I wouldn’t have even finished this one, but didn’t want to give up on it because of the author. What do you do when this happens to you?


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