White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith
It is scandalous that it took me this long to get around to reading White Teeth. I didn't know anything about it, except that it was brilliant and beloved. And rightly so.
For those who haven't read it, Smith's novel explores what it means to be an immigrant- the feelings of dislocation and isolation that stem from holding on to your culture and traditions while simultaneously trying to fit in with the people of your adopted country. But White Teeth is also about relationships: how they change over time and are influenced by every other relationship that we have.
I can't help but think of this novel in visual terms. White Teeth is like both a kaleidoscope and a spider's web. In a kaleidoscope, you see different patterns depending on how you turn the instrument, but the elements themselves never change. In the novel, each chapter functions like a turn of the kaleidoscope, where we see, for example, Irie Jones and Alsana Iqbal in conversation, and with the next chapter Alsana and her husband, Samad, arguing. This argument is in turn connected to Samad's relationship with his twin sons (I could go on, because the combinations and permutations are many!). Anyway, this is how the novel seems to function, and it does so beautifully- with each chapter comes a new combination of the same characters, each interacting compellingly with the other, and all of it coming together in the end in one tragic event.
I also see this novel in terms of a spider's web because the bonds between the characters are both strong and fragile, tested by time and circumstance (and outside forces). Some bonds are strengthened while others are broken, and it's uncertain if they can ever be repaired.
Read White Teeth- you'll thank me. And if it's novels about immigration and culture-clash that interest you, might I also suggest Abraham Cahan's early-20th-century novel The Rise of David Levinsky.