I must start by confessing that I actually finished reading Americanah a few months ago, and in the unwritten laws of writing book reviews, I’m sure there must be a rule somewhere about completing a write up no later than 7 days after completing a book. But I press on.
If I have to sum up what the book is about in a sentence, I would say it’s a tale of two teenage sweethearts, Ifemulu and Obinze, who having grown up in Nigeria, take different paths at the stage of studying at university, which leads them to experience life as foreigners abroad. Or I might describe the book a sociological essay opening up dialogue on subjects such as race and immigration, class, and politics. As one who enjoyed the study of sociology at A Level, the latter description is the one that resonates with me the most.
When Ifemelu goes to get her hair done at a black hairdressers at the start of the book, the description seemed to mirror so well my experience of hairdressers (and the experience of many other black women according to what I’m told), that I immediately thought “I’m going to love this book”. My prediction proved true about 65% of the time. For example, I agreed so much with the contents of Ifemelu’s blog posts about race, that I felt a little thwarted by the fact that I hadn’t written them myself! And even though I was born in the UK, my parents being immigrants, I could relate to Obinze’s experience’s in London as an outsider and reflected on them with a slightly pained amusement.
I felt sympathy for Ifemelu over some of her early struggles in adjusting to American life, but ultimately I did not warm to her, or root for her. It forms part of Adichie’s style to present her protagonists as flawed, but in this case the flaws generated a mild dislike within me. It perturbed me because I felt that Ifemelu’s character was loosely based on Adichie’s; Ifemelu undertook a graduate degree in Communications in Philadelphia, and was granted a fellowship at Princeton which echoes Adichie’s own life. Did that mean if I ever met Adichie, that I might not actually like her? That’s a thought I’d rather not dwell on.
In the end I couldn’t root for the love story either, which I would like to point out seemed to only simmer in the background for much of the middle section of the 477 page novel. Parts of the narrative seem to drag on and I’m not sure the book really needs to be as long as it is. After nearly losing interest and irreverently flipping through what I will call the “Obama” section of the book (I don’t see what the big deal is about Obama), things picked up again on Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria, especially as the subject of Nigerian people returning “home” highly topical at this time.
Adichie has not surpassed Half of a Yellow Sun with this offering, but that would be a very difficult feat given just how beautiful the story of love and Biafran war is.
Nevertheless, Americanah is definitely worth a read, not so much because it is a stunning piece of literature, or a particularly romantic love story, but because of its subtle and not so subtle observations of social interactions, stereotypes, inequality, and social mobility. And for that Adichie should be commended.
- An “Americanah” Returns to Lagos: Reflections on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Book (Part I) (intersectionsofanafricanlady.wordpress.com)
- ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (theliterarysisters.wordpress.com)
- “Americanah”: The many voices of America and Nigeria (salon.com)