Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Alfred A. Knopf
The beginning of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah, finds the protagonist, a Nigerian immigrant named Ifemelu, feeling dissatisfied despite her success in America.
"Her blog was doing well, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and she was earning good speaking fees, and she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine-'You are the absolute love of my life,' he'd written in her last birthday card-and yet there was cement in her soul." As she sits in an African hair-braiding salon in Trenton, she reflects on her decision to move back to Nigeria, cement and all.
We soon meet Obinze, Ifemelu's first love, in a similar jam in Nigeria. After an attempt to gain citizenship fails in Britain, he lucks into wealth back in Lagos and soon finds himself with a beautiful wife and child, but he still feels unsure of "whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to."
From here we jump back in the past to set up the couple's meeting in Lagos. Obinze is the new boy in Ifemelu's secondary school and even though "the hovering deities who gave and took teenage loves" decide he will end up with Ginika, voted prettiest girl year after year, he ends up smitten with her best friend, Ifemelu.
Their romance takes them to Nsukka for university, but the consistent teacher strikes drive them away from Nigeria. Ifemelu ends up in Philadelphia, and Obinze eventually hitches a ride to Britain as his mother's research assistant for an academic conference after failing to get an American visa. Thus begins their separation.
The story starts in the middle, a decision which allows Adichie to jump around in time, but which also robs the story of some of its drama. We know that Ifemelu will not end up with the wealthy and charming Baltimorean Curt, who shocks Ifemelu by telling her, "I don't want to be a sweetheart. I want to be the fucking love of your life." And with Obinze we know how the sham marriage with Cleotilde will end up, even though their attraction far exceeds his need for British citizenship and her need for money.
While the story can feel inevitable, it rarely drags throughout the nearly 500 pages, propelled in part by Adichie's clean, attractive prose. This is the third novel by Adichie, a Nigerian immigrant living in Columbia, Md. who won a MacArthur "genius" grant after the release of her last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.
Early on, both Obinze and Ifemelu offer their literary judgement, as if backing up Adichie's style. Ifemelu dismisses the novels her current boyfriend, the quietly condescending Blaine, prefers as being emptily stylish, "like cotton candy that so easily evaporated from her tongue's memory." About 20 pages later, Obinze is disappointed to find that, for the young reporter he meets at a dull party, "a book did not qualify as literature unless it had polysyllabic words and incomprehensible passages."
There is, however, more to Americanah than an epic love story. After Ifemelu leaves Nigeria, she discovers race. She ends up writing a blog called "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." In it, Ifemelu finds politics in everyday life. The finer points of the ethics of hairstyle and adopting an accent are explored in depth. In the later stages of the book, blog posts are tacked on at the end of chapters, summing up Ifemelu's thoughts and experiences. Unfortunately, they are not as funny or thought-provoking as described by one of the blog's admirers; fortunately, they are short.
Emigration is another central theme, along with the culture shock that comes with uprooting in search of a better life or opportunities. All of the emigrants have different coping strategies, but some of the most interesting bits are in the more minor characters. Aunty Uju, who in Lagos, is vivacious and carefree, chooses a convenient and lifeless marriage in America and is seen by Ifemelu as subdued, until a wasted glob of toothpaste left by her husband breaks her out of her pragmatic daze. Or Emenike, who adapts by shedding his past and melding into upper-crust London. The visiting Obinze realizes the transformation is complete when Emenike says at a dinner party, "Americans love us Brits."
At one point in the recurring hair-braiding scenes, Ifemelu is asked about a book she is reading. "Why did people ask 'What is it about?' as if a novel had to be about only one thing?" And while it would be hard to think that Americanah is about one thing, it does start to feel like that by the end of the book. The inevitableness of Ifemelu's return to Nigeria and Obinze ties up the novel too neatly, spinning the past events as solely the story of a transcontinental romance. In a book full of passion it is, ironically, the resolution of the romance that comes up lacking.