Study Guide

White Teeth Chapter 2

By Zadie Smith

Chapter 2

Teething Trouble

  • To Archie, Clara Bowden was just a girl who appeared on a staircase. But the fact is, she has roots. She's got a serious past.
  • This past includes her previous lives in Lambeth and, before that, Jamaica.
  • It also includes one Ryan Topps; he and Clara dated for eight months before she met Archie, and it's possible that Clara would never have ended up with Archie if she weren't trying to escape Ryan. Good for Archie, we guess?
  • Ryan was a pretty unfortunate looking guy who thought of himself as a Mod (if you can't picture what that might have looked like, google the Beatles). And he rode a green Vespa scooter.
  • See, Clara was an awkward kid who had buckteeth and few friends. She spent a lot of time in school admiring Ryan from afar, while the rest of the girls at school saw him as the least appealing option when it came to boys. Like, ever.
  • So the two were equally unpopular.
  • Clara's mother, Hortense, sent her to school with a backpack full of copies of the Watchtower so that she could try to attract people to the church of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Let's just say that, at a Catholic school, this religious affiliation = social death.
  • Clara decided that she was going to "save" Ryan Topps. You know, save his soul.
  • Darcus Bowden—Clara's father—was a huge man who never moved. He had moved to England fourteen years before, and had been watching television from his vile armchair for the whole of that time. No, really. He never got out of his chair.
  • He had come to England to earn enough money to send for Clara and Hortense, but he never really got around to doing that. Hortense decided to bring Clara over on her own in 1972.
  • When Hortense and Clara showed up together, they found Darcus in his chair, watching television. So Hortense screamed at him for a while. The only thing Darcus said then, or ever again, was "Hmph." Talkative fellow.
  • It is now 1974, and Hortense is preparing for the end of the world on New Year's Eve… along with about eight million other Jehovah's Witnesses. Keep in mind that this church has predicted the end of the world at least twice before. It's batting 0.
  • According to Hortense, Clara is not like other teenagers. She has no time for boys. She is her mother's miracle baby, born when Hortense was forty-eight.
  • Speaking of miracle babies, they seem to run in the Bowden family. Hortense was born during the massive Kingston earthquake of 1907.
  • When Ryan and Clara finally meet face-to-face, it's because Hortense has sent Clara out to convert the unsaved masses. Under these circumstances, she knocks on Ryan's door.
  • She manages to scrape her knee, and Ryan invites her in to clean it up because it's bleeding. And she doesn't want to bleed on him, really.
  • Somehow, they end up making out on Ryan's couch that afternoon, and by the next week they are dating. Or, according to St. Jude's lingo, "dealing" with each other.
  • Their dating life consists of Clara admiring Ryan and his records and scooter, and Ryan telling Clara that he's going to die young due to his fast life (on the scooter).
  • They don't actually go out at all, but they do go to a squat in North London to buy weed and hang out with Ryan's hippie friends.
  • It doesn't take long before Clara is much more interested in Ryan than in the end of the world.
  • Then, one day in October of 1974, Clara is serving detention after school. Instead of waiting for her, Ryan knocks on Hortense's door. They seem to get along quite well, and pretty soon Ryan goes straight home to Clara's mother instead of waiting for Clara after school. Talk about the end of the world. This is pretty much Clara's worst nightmare.
  • Clara doesn't want to believe it, but she slowly realizes that Hortense is converting Ryan to the church of Jehovah's Witnesses. So now the two of them are trying to save Clara's soul. Oh boy.
  • One day, Ryan picks Clara up at school on his scooter. She doesn't want to get on because she's angry with him, but he convinces her. She refuses to wear a helmet. Out of spite, we guess.
  • On the ride, Ryan tries to convince Clara that she should come back to the Church, but she insists that she knows who she is and she's not changing.
  • Somewhere in the middle of Ryan's speech he crashes his Vespa into a huge, old oak tree. Ryan and Clara go flying in opposite directions.
  • Ryan stands up without a scratch and believes that it is because God has chosen him. Clara knocks her front teeth out. Because she's not chosen?
  • When New Year's Eve comes around, Ryan is waiting for the apocalypse that doesn't come. The church's batting average is stuck at 0.
  • Clara finds herself still wanting a man to choose her, to love her, to whisk her away from her oppressive home life and boring school life.
  • This is how she finds herself with Archie Jones. He just happened to be there.