Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.
It’s this opening quote that raised my intrigue by a tenfold on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’ve read (and reviewed in praise) her previous Nonfiction works (Dear Ijeawele & We Should All Be Feminists) so I knew Adichie to be an author with a compelling way of words, but all that paled in comparison to the character building she excels at exploring in this fictional work of art.
As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?
So, now comes the difficult part of trying to sum up my reading experience of this grandiose book. Which is also, coincidentally, the first lengthy book I’ve read in awhile, so I took my sweet time savoring its pages over the course of a week. And I’m glad I did because it gave me the chance to mull over my thoughts and feelings regarding Americanah.
This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.
First and foremost, how does the author succeed so seamlessly at fleshing out a side character even if they come to show only one time??? Time and again, I was dumbfounded at Adichie’s success in cultivating characters so full of life with a single page or two, sometimes needing only one paragraph. This is raw talent right here.
By introducing a new character that says something particular, she then gives background on why they would act that way. Like, Ifem meeting someone she catches keen on another’s affection:
“He was an impresario, well oiled and well practiced, the sort of man who did a good American accent and a good British accent, who knew what to say to foreigners, how to make foreigners comfortable, and who could easily get foreign grants for dubious projects. She wondered what he was like beneath that practiced layer.”
Or, Obinze’s catching Amara’s quick fix reminding everyone how she was wronged:
“Maybe he should go and find a Jamaican woman,” Amara said. Her husband had left her for a Jamaican woman, with whom it turned out he had a secret four-year-old child, and she somehow managed to veer every conversation towards the subject of Jamaicans.”
I’m a sucker for books full of eccentric and subtle quips on life, so Americanah fell prey to my immediate affection. However, this is also where my later issues with the book stem from since I came to depend on those familiar, detailed intimacies on everyday life to propel the book forward more than the actual storyline. My mind was on a never-ending wait for more noteworthy remarks to drop, instead of caring for any actual development in the plot.
It was also a bit of a bummer to learn that the most important person in Ifemelu’s life could not have made me feel more numb. Sitting through whole chapters from Obinze’s viewpoint left those parts of the book marred for me, as a result. His grown persona, lacking that quiet strength that made up the arc of his youth, didn’t work in his favor, as well.
It’s the stark contrast between the joy and quickness Ifem’s chapters provided, in comparison to the snail-paced reading I experienced with Obinze that staggered me.
There’s also a comment in here that rubbed me the wrong way, regarding antisemitism:
“Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy—they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews—and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy.”
Why is she essentially telling me to be grateful for antisemitism?? Opting for the wrong approach where they teach hundreds of little girls to take it like a compliment when boys use abuse to get attention??? I listened to a lecture recently on antisemitism and seeing a comment like the above to excuse this systematic form of oppression made me livid.
But I’ll hit a bit of a pause on the negatives to highlight my more cherished moments from the carefully-crafted story that is Americanah. I noted down so many quotes from this book that I had to open up a separate document in my notes for lines I highly wanted to include in my review so they wouldn’t be lost amid scouring my never-ending pages. I looked something like this writing everything down from excitement:
My favorite of those include:
- When this book expertly offers us an intimate look into Ifemelu’s young love with Obinze by including us in their private inside jokes that only those two get. Like, referring to him as “Ceiling” in public and making everyone wonder about the story behind it.
“Why do you call him Ceiling anyway?” his friend Okwudiba once asked her, on one of those languorous days after first semester exams. She had joined a group of his friends sitting around a filthy plastic table in a beer parlor off campus. She drank from her bottle of Maltina, swallowed, glanced at Obinze, and said, “Because he is so tall his head touches the ceiling, can’t you see?” Her deliberate slowness, the small smile that stretched her lips, made it clear that she wanted them to know that this was not why she called him Ceiling. And he was not tall. ”
- The amount of specificity the author offers to her characters astonished me time and again. To quote Ifem’s blog, she offers “Lagos from an Insider,” and there’s an unequivocal honesty to it.
“You lied.” It was said with a kind of horror that baffled her, as though he had never considered it possible that she could lie. She wanted to say, “Blaine, people lie.” But she said, “I’m sorry.”
“Why?” He was looking at her as though she had reached in and torn away his innocence, and for a moment she hated him, this man who ate her apple cores and turned even that into something of a moral act.”
I can’t get over that last line. Blaine was one of the more interesting boyfriends of Ifem’s past. I liked, in particular, their initial encounter on the train the very same day Ifemelu drops her efforts at assimilating with faking an American accent.
“It was not in her nature to talk to strangers on public transportation—she would do it more often when she started her blog a few years later—but she talked and talked, perhaps because of the newness of her own voice. The more they talked, the more she told herself that this was no coincidence; there was a significance to her meeting this man on the day that she returned her voice to herself.”
Theirs was a fascinating dynamic that I loved seeing chronicled.
“So when are you going to have the next salon, Shan? I was telling Ifemelu about them.”
When Blaine had told Ifemelu about Shan calling her gatherings “salons,” he had underlined the word with mockery, but now he said it with an earnestly French pronunciation: sa-lon.”
The peak of intimacy arrives through these details that expand on domestic life; sharing a life together means you know their true, intimate thoughts, so that in outside situations you’re like, ummm, that’s not what you told me in private…
- On feeling stuck and unresolved in her relationship:
“But she had not had a bold epiphany and there was no cause; it was simply that layer after layer of discontent had settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her. She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out.”
I read that last part twice to let its magnificent power sink in
“How was it possible to miss something you no longer wanted? Blaine needed what she was unable to give and she needed what he was unable to give, and she grieved this, the loss of what could have been.”
- Sifting through Ifemelu’s past and playing this game of catch-up, there hits a certain moment when things start to feel exhausting and previous plot lines are forgotten (like, Ifem getting her hair braided in present day, which we keep returning to) in the process of reading this richly told story spanning three continents and numerous lives. And circling back to the present after being so caught up in the past is when my enthralment for the story usually goes down by a notch… That is until another noteworthy line gets dropped on us.
- Such as, the clapback delivered to Obinze at the hands of his wife, Kosi, after he confesses to his immature desires, left me feeling more empowered than the “cool girl” speech from Gone Girl:
“It’s not about another woman, Obinze,” Kosi said, rising to her feet, her voice steeling, her eyes hardening. “It’s about keeping this family together! You took a vow before God. I took a vow before God. I am a good wife. We have a marriage. Do you think you can just destroy this family because your old girlfriend came into town? Do you know what it means to be a responsible father? You have a responsibility to that child downstairs! What you do today can ruin her life and make her damaged until the day she dies! And all because your old girlfriend came back from America? Because you have had acrobatic sex that reminded you of your time in university?”
I couldn’t have been more grateful to Kosi for saying what I always yell at men who want to leave their wives and families to satisfy some impulse.
Also: “acrobatic sex.” I C O N I C
I’ll leave this list of favorites on one last priceless moment because I’m this close to sharing the whole novel with you… I smiled at the below:
“It’s a cowardly, dishonest book. Have you read it?” Shan asked.
“I read a review,” Mirabelle said.
“That’s the problem. You read more about books than you read actual books.”
That is to say, I’m more than eager to discover the power of Adichie’s words in exploring her other books.