Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliantly, beautifully written with a clear and incisive voice. I didn’t like the half-hearted, predictable romance between Ifemelu and Obinze, but this was a smaller part of the book than the first few chapters and dust jacket would have you believe. I’m fine with authors using characters as vehicles for social commentary, but if a story is built on two levels, it needs to function on both. Strangely, I found myself reading the commentary and skipping the romance (usually it’s the other way around).
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
When the story begins, Ifemelu has been in the U.S. for 13 years. She sends Obinze an email which kicks off some fond reminiscing. It’s clear they’re going to get together once they’ve overcome the obstacle of Obinze’s wife. I don’t immediately dismiss stories that hinge on infidelity, but I bristle when they take the romantic comedy approach. It’s hard to see it as anything other than the writer’s attempt to say, “I want to introduce a sticky plot point, but don’t want you to experience a complicated emotion or feel bad.” The approach I’m referring to is when Person A realizes they love Person B, but B is with Person X. Typically, X remains oblivious while A and B fall in love. Then X turns out to be a jerk shortly before B dumps them to make a teary proclamation to A. It’s important that X be awful, because the viewer/reader needs to see them as an impediment instead of a person while they’re cheering for Persons A and B.
In Obinze’s first chapter, the reader is introduced to his wife, Kosi, as she shouts at the newly-hired help for having condoms in her bag:
“What is this for? Eh? You came to my house to be a prostitute?”
The girl looked down at first, silent, then she looked Kosi in the face and said quietly, “In my last job, my madam’s husband was always forcing me.”
Kosi’s eyes bulged. She moved forward a moment, as though to attack the girl in some way, and then stopped.
“Please carry your bag and go now,” she said.
The girl shifted, looking a little surprised, and then she picked up her bag and turned to the door. After she left, Kosi said, “Can you believe the nonsense, darling? She came here with condoms and she actually opened her mouth to say that rubbish. Can you believe it?”
“Her former employer raped her so she decided to protect herself this time.” Obinze said.
Kosi stared at him. “You feel sorry for her. You don’t know these house girls. How can you feel sorry for her?”
He wanted to ask, How can you not? But the tentative fear in her eyes silenced him. Her insecurity, so great and so ordinary, silenced him. (41-42)
The reader is being prepped to root for Ifemelu and Obinze, but it feels hollow. Predictability is a funny thing. It doesn’t always kneecap my enjoyment of a book, but it was especially disappointing in this case because it was clear Ifemelu and Obinze would be pushed together even if they outgrew each other in their respective arcs. What a way to preemptively negate character development.
But on to the good!
Expectations can change your opinion of a book. If you’re expecting straightforward fiction with a linear plot, you might be disappointed. If you expect a discussion of race in the U.S. with a story around the edges, you’ll like it. Framed this way, the romance becomes a bonus add-on. Just as the Ifemelu/Obinze story was grating on me, it was moved to the back burner and Americanah became more about Ifemelu’s blog. Titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” her blog features posts and discussion prompts about race in the U.S.
Ifemelu’s voice is frank and sharp. She has a way of stating things without preamble or mincing language. Her bluntness is refreshing since race is a subject that often brings out stuttering or ill-used buzzwords. This snippet seems relevant as there’s a lot of talk about privilege these days:
What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White
So this guy said to Professor Hunk, “White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.” Right. But privilege is always relative to something else. Now imagine someone like him, as poor and as fucked up, and then make that person black. If both are caught for drug possession, say, the white guy is more likely to be sent to treatment and the black guy is more likely to be sent to jail. Everything else the same except for race. […] So Appalachian hick guy doesn’t have class privilege but he sure as hell has race privilege.
This also chips away at some of the criticism of Americanah from people who say Ifemelu has no right to complain in the U.S. because she eventually attains privilege: She attains class/money privilege, never race privilege.
Ifemelu is an interesting character because she isn’t likeable, a quality which actually strengthens the more polemic sections of the book. She’s cold and hypocritical at times in her interactions with others (men in particular), but this doesn’t change the veracity of her observations and experiences.
Overall: 4.4 Oh, the cheeseball love stuff… Though the Ifemelu/Obinze plot is trite and silly and does a disservice to their characters, it is well-written (as in phrasing, word-choice, narrative flow, etc.).
Translation: Read it.