Friday, October 18, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

All credit for my discovery of this novel goes to Goodreads as well as Barnes & Noble. It was on Goodreads that I first read the description of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah and decided I wanted to read it eventually. But it was seeing it at Barnes & Noble that made me realize that "eventually" wasn't quite soon enough.

The Situation: Ifemelu and Obinze grew up in Nigeria, where they met as kids. Almost immediately there was something between them. They liked each other and continued to date even after Ifemelu went away to America to go to school. She and Obinze kept in touch through emails and phone calls, and their friends and family did not doubt that soon they would be receiving wedding invitations and that the couple would be linked together forever. But eventually, it appears that Ifemelu has cut off all contact with Obinze. She stops returning phone calls and emails, eventually changing her number and deleting her old email account. Friends and family are confused, and Obinze is devastated. Enough time will pass, and Ifemelu will begin to meet and date other men as she gets more established in America, and Obinze himself will get married and have a child back in Nigeria. It isn't the way anyone thought the story would go, but that is what was happening.

The Problem: Obinze is now a rich man in Nigeria and is doing very well. But he isn't completely satisfied with how things are, and he often thinks about how he should not have married his somewhat simple and superficial wife, Kosi. He may have been able to continue living this life just fine, except one day he receives an email out of the blue from Ifemelu saying that she will be returning to Nigeria after years of living in America. Now he is obsessively looking online for more information about her and about what she has been doing. He checks his Blackberry constantly to see if she has emailed back. He even finds out what he can about the men she has dated in the States and finds himself becoming jealous, even though Ifemelu has long done with them. What will Ifemelu's return mean for him? For them?

Genre, Themes, History: If anything, this section is going to show just how simplistic my above summary actually is. This is a fiction novel that is about much more than just a boy and girl who become separated by time and oceans who are about to be reunited again. In fact, for the majority of the book, Ifemelu and Obinze aren't even together on the same continent. Just as much as this book is about a long lost love, it is also about race relations in America, cross-cultural communication and interaction, immigration, literature, education, and even black hair care. Ifemelu didn't simply come to America, get an education, work a few jobs, date a few people, and then go back home to Nigeria. She had to deal with all of the paperwork and red tape that comes with being from another country and trying to work and go to school in America. She started a blog about race in America that soon had readers from all over the world. She watched her aunt, a single parent, struggle to become a doctor in a strange country while raising her son. And she watched other people from other countries try to make it in their own way, with their own unique struggles and successes. Even Obinze had a brief stint in London that ended in his deportation. And after finally making headway as a businessman back in Nigeria, the reader is given a look into how Nigerians do business, how much they value status and wealth, and what being successful means to them. There is a lot packed into this 477 page novel, making it one of those books for which it is impossible to answer the dreaded question "So, what's it about?"

My Verdict: As I said, there is a lot to this book, but I rarely felt overwhelmed by everything that was going on and everything that Ifemelu was observing. I am sure many will feel like Ifemelu's thoughts on race will seem heavy-handed and unnecessary, but really, her observations felt to me like the kind of stuff a non-American black person would pick up on and find interesting. The reader gets to follow Ifemelu from her life as a young girl in Nigeria, to her life as a young adult in America, and then back home again. And while you know from the beginning that Ifemelu intends to return to Nigeria and meet up again with Obinze, Adichie writes it all in such a way that I didn't mind at all that she takes the scenic route and almost leaves the reunion for the very end. In fact, I think I would have been fine if Ifemelu and Obinze went on living their separate lives. The love story between the two of them was probably my least favorite part. I enjoyed watching Ifemelu navigate life in America, and Obinze's misadventures in London that lead him back home. There is one part where a character, the sister of one of Ifemelu's American boyfriends, is lamenting that she wanted to write about race, but the editor keeps wanting her to sort of water it down and make it about other stuff too. And maybe that is what Adichie had to do. Maybe this book is really about race, but the love story was put in to really sell it. I honestly have no idea, but I can see that happening.

Favorite Moment: The parts I enjoyed the most came from the blog post entries that were included throughout the novel. Ifemelu is a fairly straight-forward person who isn't afraid to speak her mind, but in her blog, she really didn't hold back. Topics ranged from black hair care, to Barack Obama, to the white friend who "gets it," to interracial relationships, and on and on. For me, these were some of the most interesting passages in the book.

Favorite Character: I may not have agreed with her opinions and her actions all of the time, but I will pick Ifemelu as my favorite character. She is the one the reader has the most access to throughout the novel, and fortunately for me she rarely got on my nerves and didn't cause much eye-rolling. I think I like her because she wasn't afraid to be the bad guy and tell the truth.

Recommended Reading: A few times throughout the book, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is mentioned, and that would be a great follow up to Americanah. Also, Baratunde Thurston's How to Be Black is always a good choice.

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