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145 of 155 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Changing lives in North West London, September 4, 2012
This review is from: NW: A Novel (Hardcover)
The primary characters in Zadie Smith's new novel -- residents of North West London, from which the title derives -- are dissected and analyzed, or more often skewered, as Smith lays bare their hypocrisies, ambitions, facades, insecurities, prejudices, and fears. The four central characters stand on different rungs of the social ladder. The impact of class and social identity on relationships is the novel's central theme, why some people rise above their beginnings and others don't is the central question, but -- setting aside those social issues -- I enjoyed NW for the portrait it paints of troubled individuals coming to terms with their changing lives.

Leah Hanwell, 35, is married to an African named Michel. Leah has a love/hate relationship with Michel, and also with her friend Natalie (formerly Keisha), a barrister whose upward mobility (assisted by marriage to a prosperous money manager) has eluded her childhood friends. Just as J-Lo tried some years ago to convince her audience that she was still "Jenny from the block," Natalie is experiencing something of an identity crisis. Having shed the name Keisha, she still clings to her past, at least to Leah, whose attendance at Natalie's posh parties seems designed to contrast Natalie's humble beginnings to her current status. Although Leah has done well for herself, earning a degree and finding employment with a nonprofit, she remains tongue-tied in the company of educated professionals (Natalie invites Leah to tell stories and then gladly tells them for her) and is embarrassed by Michel's sincerity (but only when they are in public). Leah also seems envious of and disquieted by Natalie's children.

A couple of lesser characters haven't made the same progress as Natalie and Leah. Nathan Bogle, the recipient of Leah's childhood crush, is mired in a slang-filled, weed-smoking life, a life on the streets that is dedicated solely to survival. His role in the novel is to teach Natalie that she knows nothing about his social class despite attending the same school when they were both ten. Nathan knows Natalie has "made it" because she can squander her tears on something as insignificant as a distressed marriage; she has left more fundamental worries behind. Yet for all her success and despite Nathan's complaint that she is needlessly self-pitying, Natalie feels trapped by her circumstances. Her desperate sadness motivates foolish behavior.

Positioned somewhere between Nathan and Leah on the ladder of success is Felix Cooper, whose Jamaican father lives in the West End. Felix craves the freedom of a better life in the North West with Grace (half Jamaican, half Nigerian), who wants to free him of his "negative energy." While interesting and well written, Felix's story seems out of place, having only a tangential connection to the rest of the novel.

Readers who cannot abide unconventional writing might dislike NW. Each of the novel's sections is written in a different style. Dialog is often (but not always) set apart in condensed paragraphs; in the first section, quotation marks are nonexistent. Sentences, like the thoughts they reflect, are sometimes incomplete or scattered. One passage is written as free-form poetry; another as an online chat. The largest chunk of the novel is written as a series of vignettes, scenes that deftly sketch out Leah's and Natalie's lives from their childhood to the present. One section follows Natalie as she takes a long walk through the North West; it is divided into subsections ("Hampstead to Archway") like a guide to a walking tour. I enjoyed the different styles -- they aren't particularly daring and they don't make the novel inaccessible -- but readers who favor a straightforward narrative might be put off by the jarring changes in format.

As we have come to expect from Zadie Smith, much of the story is wryly amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny. Her description of "marriage as the art of invidious comparison" is one of many sly observations I admired. Smith's prose is as graceful and unpredictable as a tumbleweed. The pace is relaxed, not slow but unhurried. In a good way, the story is slightly meandering. Smith takes her time, developing the characters and their surroundings bit by bit until it all becomes real.

I suspect that readers who dislike Jonathan Franzen's most recent novels will dislike NW for the same reasons: there isn't much of a plot and the characters aren't always likable (although Smith's characters aren't as determinedly self-centered as Franzen's). Both writers strive to say something about society at large by focusing on smaller segments, families and friends who are defined by geography and class. Readers who believe that good writing often illuminates the world as it exists, not as we want it to be, that it is just as important to understand flaws as perfection, will find much to admire in Smith's surgical exploration of characters struggling to come to grips with their changing lives. To my mind, NW is a fine, fun, five star novel.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 4, 2012 1:48:46 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 4, 2012 1:48:59 PM PDT
Ed Morgan says:
I agree with much of your review. I found the "unconventional" aspects to the novel to be some of its most interesting. The experimental elements add to the fragmented, mobile experience of the novel. Broken into its composite vignettes, it comes across as many distinct but related experiences.

Posted on Sep 6, 2012 11:32:35 AM PDT
This reviewed made sense, unlike the other one! The comparison to Franzen is helpful. I loved his last novel but I know some of my friends hated it. Thanks and I will definitely read Smith's new book.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 7, 2012 5:40:54 AM PDT
TChris says:
Thank you for your kind comments, Teresa. I am also a Franzen fan, but I know from reading Amazon reviews that readers are sharply divided about his recent novels. I am curious to see whether NW produces the same division of opinion.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 7, 2012 12:52:08 PM PDT
dudnpad says:
This is one of the most pretentious "reviews" ever scribbled on Amazon. It says absolutely nothing. What, prey tell, is a " fragmented mobile experience." ? Sounds like sex gone haywire.

Posted on Sep 13, 2012 1:11:14 PM PDT
TS Anne says:
i love franzen's freedom-- but the comparison is not even logical.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2012 4:26:00 PM PDT
dudnpad says:
In what manner? Z. Smith's NW finer? or Worser? For the more literate: Read Oates' AM article on Smith. As with all that she writes-- simply brilliant.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2012 8:02:51 PM PDT
TChris says:
If you read the Amazon reviews of Freedom, you will find many readers complaining that the characters are unlikable and that the book had no plot. My guess is that some readers will dislike NW for the same reasons. That is the basis of my comparison.

Posted on Sep 24, 2012 1:51:07 PM PDT
Lois M. Cole says:
The two minor characters--"Nathan" (born) and "Felix" (happiness) are more merely symbolic than the two women friends. One represents the class the two are born into; the other represents the fleeting nature of uncomplicated happiness.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 24, 2012 5:11:13 PM PDT
dudnpad says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Oct 6, 2012 6:48:55 PM PDT
I like this review a lot, and it tells me a great deal that is relevant about the book, without spoiling anything (not that ZS's approach to plot is vulnerable to spoilers). It also gathers the different strands in a way that is helpful, even read in retrospect. I found the Felix section the beating heart of the book, though, and the moral touchstone by which the rest could be judged. I also found the three major characters at least to be quite easy to like, and the whole a heck of a lot more authentic than anything of mr. Franzen's.
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