Book review: Americanah, By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For those who are curious about my progress with NaNoWriMo, I reached the 50K word goal this afternoon, almost a week ahead of time. Yeah! On to 60K in the next six days?

I often enjoy novels about other cultures, especially ones where people from those worlds come into contact with Americans. Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Audrey Chin and Jhumpa Lahiri immediately come to mind as authors who have explored this territory in ways which both entranced me and said new things about my country. I also enjoyed Adichie’s earlier novel, Purple Hibiscus, about two young children growing up with an abusive yet very religious father. So, when I saw reviews for Americanah, I

English: Chimamanda Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

anticipated more great writing. To my delight, I found it on the new book shelf at my local library.
This novel, in which a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, comes to the United States to go to college and become an American citizen, while her boyfriend, Obinze, ends up in England, covers a lot of ground. I found it at times fascinating, funny, smart and tedious. Some of the best material covers their difficulties surviving in countries which are not as open to immigrants as one might expect. Neither one of them can work legally: Ifemelu, because foreign students can only do work-study, which doesn’t give her enough money to live on; Obinze because he overstays his temporary visa. Obinze’s experience reminds me a lot of Little Bee in Chris Cleave‘s novel of that name (see my review of his other novel, Incendiary, here), and sheds light on some of the less easily understood aspects of Little Bee’s experience. Both Little Bee and Obinze are caught and deported back to their home countries.
There’s also some interesting material about how difficult it is for Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, a medical doctor who immigrates to the US, and has to redo to medical school and a residency in order to practice medicine here. Perhaps because of her financial difficulties, and also because of her age, she dates a Nigerian man. Ifemelu, who stays with her Aunty Uju when she first comes to the US, sees immediately that this man is not good for her Aunt:

“She had slipped into the rituals, smiling a smile that promised to be demure to him but not to the world, lunging to pick up his fork when it slipped from his hand, serving him more beer.”

While in college, Ifemelu begins writing a blog about being a nonAmerican black in America. The insights she has about the United States are fascinating. She picks up on many tiny things, from dress, expectations, and hair, which differ greatly between her homeland and the US. She also has two long affairs, one with a rich white man and one with a politically-engaged liberal professor, Blaine. I suppose that these affairs pushed the plot along, but they seemed to take up more time in the novel than necessary. The interaction with Blaine’s sister especially seems like a sidetrack going nowhere.
I found the main storyline, in which Ifemelu eventually returns to Nigeria, figures out how to make a living, and hooks up with the now-married Obinze, more interesting than these intermediate relationships, because that’s the real tension behind this story: how they ended apart and yet never could break the tie even when they hadn’t spoken in years.
Overall, this is a wonderful book, though I think it would have been a lot better if it had been trimmed to eliminate some of the less interesting material and some of the repetition, and added more material on what happened when Obinze returned to Nigeria, an entire quadrant of his life only hinted at. If you like reading about how immigrants react and deal with the United States and Great Britain, and some of the culture differences, you will enjoy this book. I suspect it appeals more to people in the eastern part of the US than to the rest, just because that is where it’s set.

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