Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I liked this book better after we discussed it at book club.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The latest book for the Serious Book Club (which is my IRL book club, but I take the conversation from our book club discussion and write about here, that way you can “join” too!) was Swing Time by Zadie Smith.

If you’ve the book, please chime in with your thoughts in the comments! We are currently reading A Long Way Home: A Memoir if you want to start reading that in anticipation for the next Serious Book Club installment.

Swing Time was one of those books that made me realize how much discussing a book with a small group of people can completely transform your feelings about a book.

I admittedly didn’t love this book while reading it. Some parts and characters were much more interesting and well developed than others. Everyone in my book club agreed — they felt very up and down while reading the book.

Sometimes when I read a book by a well-respected author I feel like maybe I’m just not smart enough or well-read enough to “get it”. I think over time, with more education, and with a lot more reading under my belt I will get better at more quickly understanding and seeing undertones in a book and putting complicated narratives together.

I knew I was missing things when reading this book that I just didn’t see or understand yet, and book club actually helped all of us figure out some things about the book. It took a few hours but we all realized that we all liked and/or respected the book more after our discussion. I at least felt like I understood more about the book after discussing it. It made me want to discuss every book I read with people just to make sure I’m not missing something.

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The book hit on race, class, relationships, politics, celebrity. Now that I think about it, there was A LOT going on in this book!

One of the most interesting things to me was that the main character and narrator didn’t have a name. I didn’t realize this until I was going back through the marks I made in the book write down what I wanted to discuss at book club and I couldn’t figure out what the narrator’s name was, then I realized she wasn’t named. Which I learned was intentional on the Smith’s part.

 

This book made me think — what is the goal of reading a book?

 

What do I want out of it? Do I have to like it or enjoy reading it? Learn from it?

I definitely learned things from reading this book, but I didn’t necessarily love or enjoy the story.

To me the story was about the women and relationships. The narrator was telling you her story, and figuring out herself, through her relationships with her mother, her friend Tracey, her employer Aimee, and another friend Hawa.

You start with the narrator’s relationship with her friend Tracey, and it comes back around at the end. I don’t know that I’d say that it comes around full circle because I felt like the ending — Tracey leaking an embarrassing video of the narrator and her dancing as kids — in my mind I felt like no one would really care much about in the modern world. It wouldn’t be something that would destroy your job like it did for the narrator because no one (in the public) cared about the narrator, so why would anyone care about the video? Maybe Aimee did but I just felt like it wasn’t outrageous enough to be so dramatic.

There was a lot of race issues and social issues and it wasn’t that I didn’t pick up on them, but I think as a reader you tend to come at these issues from your own experience, and I felt like the race issues were most strong in the narrative of Aimee’s desire to build a girl’s school in West Africa. Also, being white, I think there are things that without diving really deep into African American studies that I just don’t naturally see or experience myself.

There are two African American gals in my book club and I asked them about this — did they think that they could identify more with the book, the author, and some of underlying themes because they were black and I’m not? They did, which made me feel like less of an idiot. I think we tend to know more about our own personal heritage unless we take it upon ourselves to study others in depth — what do you think?

I thought it was a good current social issue to bring up about how without the proper research about how Aimee’s money could most benefit the West African community, the school wasn’t successful. Although I’m sure Aimee didn’t see it that way. It was her naiveté that I found interesting for Smith to touch on. Predictable because Aimee was a predictable celebrity stereotype, but still interesting for Smith to add on the global conversation of celebrities and philanthropy.

After we (book club gals) had spent about two hours discussing the book, we were nearing the end of our meeting when we started talking about how we felt like the book was disjointed and a bit all over the place in terms of structure. But then one of the gals realized (or assumed at least) that this was done intentionally by Smith. You are supposed to feel like the narrator is feeling in her own life as an assistant to Aimee — a crazy life, all over the place, never sleeping in one place very long, no real home. I can’t take any credit for this realization but we (book club gals) were all like oh yaaaa that’s totally right!

The narrator says, I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

I always like to point out passages from the book that grab me for whatever reason. When she mentioned shadow, I felt like that was going to be a huge theme in the book, and it was.

The narrator talking about her mother:

It’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on—it’s what I’ve always demanded myself—but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. … Yet I still couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the every role of motherhood.

This made me think about my own parents. How you don’t really realize they are people with lives outside of YOU their child until you become an adult (or in my case at least I didn’t realize this until they were getting divorced). And not just that they are people with hobbies and things, obviously I knew that, but I think more so that it was that they were maybe different than what I thought. Not in a bad way, but my parents were going through a divorce the same time that I got married, and it wasn’t until then that I realized that I didn’t know everything about them and their relationship. They had lots of things and parts of them that I had no clue about. That was a huge revelation to me.

I thought this was interesting (below) about the narrator’s mother because I do think that some people do really feel like this, especially people who fight for social justice and some politicians.

Long before it became her career my mother had a political mind: it was in her nature to think of people collectively. Even as a child I noticed it, and felt instinctively that there was something chilly and unfeeling in her ability to analyze so precisely the people she lived among: her friends, her community, her own family. We were all, at one and the same time, people she knew and loved but also objects of study

I don’t feel this way to the extent that the narrator’s mom did, but I do think that I look at people in an “objects of study” manner sometimes. I thought this was an interesting observation about personalities by Smith.

I often say that there’s room for everyone when I talk about the creative community in DC specifically. Some people can “make it” doing a craft or what they love, and those that can’t end up getting a job and maybe just end up doing that craft as a true hobby. So thinking of the narrator’s thought — I often wondered: is it some kind of a trade-off? Do others have to lose so we can win? — made me think — Is someone losing if I’m winning? Is there always a winner and loser in every situation? I don’t know.

A main theme in the book was the power in relationships. The relationship between Tracey and the narrator was definitely passive aggressive, or maybe not so passive. Tracey usually had the power over the narrator. Aimee had power over the narrator. This passage — Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? — made me think about my own relationships in this way. And I personally really don’t feel any sort of power in most of my relationships. I think that’s a good thing?

So many things about this passage:

I don’t mean that my mother didn’t love me but she was not a domestic person: her life was in her mind. The fundamental skill of all mothers—the management of time—was beyond her. She measured time in pages. Half an hour, to her, meant ten pages read, or fourteen, depending on the size of the type…

Her life was in her mind. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to that saying. I think I feel like I can identify with it a little. I don’t think my whole life is in my mind, but some of it is. Maybe it’s just the parts of my life that I want to live and haven’t yet are there.

When she said that she measured time in pages, me and another girl in my book club were like YES WE DO THAT TOO! For me it’s not just pages, but I measure time in how much work can I do, etc.

When speaking about one of her boyfriends the narrator said that her instinct was always to find the fault in myself. My first instinct when I read that was, you poor thing, you have no confidence. And then I wondered if I feel that way? I’m a naturally confident person. I don’t know if it’s genes, that I’m the first born, that I’m an Aries, or what but I just naturally tend to be confident. However, I do find moments when I second guess myself and I think OH NO did I do that or say that!?! Luckily my foot in mouth moments are rare, but that panic and/or being down on yourself feeling is awful.

I’m really hard on myself and as an entrepreneur I’m always thinking that there’s more I could be doing, or that I should be doing something differently or more strategically. I do think that to an extent finding the fault in yourself can be good or helpful in some situations, but not in the way that the narrator was implying. For her I believe it was that she really didn’t have any self confidence and she let people push her over all the time.

I loved this phrase:

A city mind, he called it, the kind that can never know peace, because it has nothing natural to mediate upon, only concrete and images, and images of images…

It made me think about how immediately when I do something in the outdoors, specifically out of the city, I feel an instant relief. Like I’m instantly relaxed when we go hiking. At the same time, I also have a tiny piece of me that is panicked about maybe not having cell service or not being near any other people when in the outdoors. Maybe I’ve seen a few too many Dateline episodes…

We’ve made it a habit of trying to pick the cast if the book we read turned into a movie so here were our thoughts for this book:

  • Narrator: Ruth Negga
  • Tracey: Gugu Mbatha-Raw
  • Fern: Olivier Martinez
  • Lamin: Djimon Honsou
  • Aimee: Kate Mara or Avril Lavigne
  • Hawa: Lupita Nyong’o

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Okay so there you have the latest book club discussion. If you’ve read Swing Time please chime in with your thoughts the comments! I would LOVE to hear your perspective!

See all of my posts about books here, and see my bookshelf here.