Two summers ago, while living and working abroad, I devoured the entire works of both Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith over the course of several months. I was enchanted by Adichie's lush, vibrant prose and stunned by Smith's brilliant, dizzyingly intricate plots. Reading the two authors side by side as I did, it was impossible not to draw comparisons, although they are both superb. I slightly preferred Adichie's novels, primarily set in Nigeria and America— portraits of women rendered in warm, gorgeous, biting, and often deeply funny anecdotes.
Smith was more cerebral, her writing devastatingly swift and sharp. She seemed particularly skilled at writing outside of herself: in White Teeth, her debut novel, she crafted a modern epic with characters who spanned myriad generations, ethnicities, and genders; in The Autograph Man, her main character is a half-Asian, half-Jewish millennial named Alex Li. When she visited my college the following fall, I asked her how she was able to write characters whose life experiences were so far removed from her own. She looked at me as if I was extremely simple. "I just imagine it. It's not that hard for me."
In Swing Time, Smith tackles a space that is wholly different than any she's chronicled before, but one that was, to me, shocking in its familiarity — the world of musical theater. Her protagonists are two biracial girls who meet in dance class: Tracy, a preternaturally talented ballerina, nearly perfect in face and frame, who ends up in bit roles on the West End, and her best friend, the unnamed narrator of the story who gives up her dreams of dancing and singing to follow a more conventional, but theoretically just as fulfilling, career path.
There are many, many references to musicals throughout the novel, and the attention and detail Smith lavishes on them truly made my head spin. As someone who grew up reenacting scenes from old movie musicals, who took tap and ballet and voice lessons and dreamed of one day tearfully accepting a Tony, reading Zadie Smith wax poetic about Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls in Guys and Dolls was a borderline religious experience. I read in disbelief as Smith artfully described the obscure Act II dance number "Take Back Your Mink” (usually overshadowed by the better known “Bushel and a Peck” — in case you were wondering!). But it was when the narrator, who gave up dreams of show business as a teenager, watches Tracey in a production Show Boat that Smith delivered this fan kick to the face:
Kramer chuckled, the music turned to ragtime, and I felt my feet moving beneath me, trying to echo on the plush red carpet the complicated soft-shoe shuffle Tracey was performing right above me on the hard-wood stage. They steps were familiar to me—the would have been to any dancer—and I wished I could have been up there with her. I was stuck in London, in the year 2005, but Tracey was in Chicago in 1893, and Dahomey a hundred years before that, and anywhere and any time that people have moved their feet like that. I was so jealous I cried.
After finishing the passage, I dramatically slammed the book shut. I felt personally attacked; just like Smith's narrator, I had openly cried middle of musicals, bones aching with envy as I did my very best to imagine myself onstage instead. Once, I actually left during intermission of a college production because it was actually too painful not to be up there myself.
Like the unnamed protagonist, I had wavered upon, and ultimately given up on my dreams of seriously pursuing theater. What happened? I just up and decided at one day that—in one of those moments during puberty when whatever exists of your self-esteem seems to completely bottom out —I simply was not talented enough, something that I felt was obvious after working alongside actors and singers who would go on to study at schools like Tisch and Juilliard. I also felt a deep conviction that a life of cattle calls and blunt rejection was not for me.
But I could never help but wonder — if I had tried a little harder, if I had trained more, if I had committed earlier, could I have made it? After all, I had been there, singing and dancing alongside some of the best. Right?
I know it’s not productive to spin out into an existential crisis about my Broadway career that never was, but it was impossible not to draw parallels between myself and Smith's protagonist, in ways that were both startling and cathartic. One of my favorite parts of the novel was the way Smith chronicled the narrator's obsession with performers like Fred Astaire: she reverently picks apart their dances, rewatching them over and over until every step, every syncopated beat is committed to memory.
In her, I saw someone whose passion for music and love of performance had never dulled—could never dull; someone whose fascination with jazz and its wild rhythms were inscribed in her bones and on her person; someone who would always be able to break out into a triple time-step no matter where in the world, or how far from the stage, her life and career took her.