White Teeth is a whirlwind exploration of immigration and multiculturalism, their effects on people, and the way these cultural events ripple out from individuals into all of London life. The story starts with the Second World War and ends just before the turn of the millennium, spanning 50 years during which everything changes.
In telling the story of the birth of modern London, the book weaves together the lives of Archie and Samad, an unlikely pair of friends whose friendship is founded on shared experiences in the closing days of the war. Through these men, their wives, and their children, Smith illustrates the struggles that have been involved in English society's evolution into what it is today. Zadie Smith tells the story of "the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. The century of the great immigrant experiment."
The book opens with Archie alone in his car, his windows sealed shut, and a vacuum hose running in from the car's exhaust pipe. Disillusioned after a divorce and thinking himself past his prime, he retires to an unremarkable side street, choosing a spot across from a halal butcher shop. As Archie's thoughts are muddled by exhaust, we get a measure of the man who will be our protagonist:
It was the thought of a whore he met once, twenty years ago, it was Daria and her smile that made him cover Mo's apron with tears of joy as the butcher saved his life. He had seen her in his mind: a beautiful woman in a doorway with a come-hither look; and he realized he regretted not coming hither. If there was any chance of ever seeing a look like that again, then he wanted the second chance, he wanted the extra time.
And so Archie is saved and the story unfolds. To a large extent, White Teeth is an examination of what Archie does with that extra time. He falls in love with a raised-in-London fallen Jehovah's Witness with Caribbean roots, Clara Bowden, who is described as "beautiful in all senses except, maybe, by virtue of being black." Archie is 47. Clara is 19.
Archie's best friend, Samad, has also recently married a woman younger than himself. Both men feel a generation gap between themselves and their wives, a gulf that widens as children are born. Archie and Samad never quite understand each other, but their friendship throughout the book is often the only thing that keeps them from being isolated and alone. These men don't understand their wives, their children or the world, but they understand each other, even when their actions have a patina of fervent insanity to outside observers.