When you’ve finished The Goldfinch, by all means take a breather. You’ve just knocked back about three regular-length books. You need a palate cleanser! Read a magazine, catch up on your favorite TV show, maybe see Maleficent or Godzilla. If you’re looking for your next big read – an ambitious book that’s also a page-turner, a book that people are talking about – I’d recommend Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fair warning: like The Goldfinch, it’s hefty – sprawling across 15 years, 3 continents, and nearly 500 pages. It’s a love story, an immigrant story, a story about America and also Nigeria. Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013 and was named one of the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2013.
Ifemelu and Obinze are high school sweethearts in Lagos – middle class but precariously so, educated, raised to believe that something better and more is abroad. Ifemelu earns a partial scholarship to college in Philadelphia, which initially gives her no easy life in America; in the years to come, she blogs her way to financial success through “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” After fifteen years abroad, Lagos pulls her back home. Obinze works illegally in London until he is deported back to Nigeria, where he and Ifemelu eventually find each other again. The last page might make you cry.
Americanah helped me understand what it might feel like to be an African immigrant in America, leaving behind a more conservative culture in many ways and trying to make sense of what it means to be black in America. It also helped me understand what it might be like to live daily life in the middle class in Nigeria! People there distinguish themselves in the usual ways – hierarchies of power, wealth, status, personality, beauty. Tribal affiliation matters. Family matters. The color of your skin does not. In America, Ifemelu observes that the color of her skin affects just about everything, and she feels both kinship and great psychological distance from African-Americans born and raised in her new country. In many ways, Americanah is a story of loneliness and the meaning of home.
Some writers seem especially gifted at observing society – think Tom Wolfe. Other writers seem particularly adept at exploring the yearnings of the heart. For me, that writer might be Michael Cunningham. Adichie beautifully covers territory on both sides of the divide.
Her observations of social interactions are particularly acute. Here is Ifemelu interviewing for a babysitting job with her potential employer, Kimberly:
“Hello, I’m Ifemelu.”
“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
There’s more to Kimberly than that, though. Adichie envisions a close relationship developing between Kimberly and Ifemelu:
One day, late that winter, when she was with Kimberly at the huge kitchen table, drinking tea and waiting for the children to be brought back from an outing with their grandmother, Kimberly said, “Oh, look at this beautiful woman,” and pointed at a plain model in a magazine whose only distinguishing feature was her very dark skin. “Isn’t she just stunning?”
“No, she isn’t.” Ifemelu paused. “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.”
Kimberly was taken aback, something wordless spread on her face and then she smiled, and Ifemelu would think of it as the moment they became, truly, friends. But on that first day, she liked Kimberly, her breakable beauty, her purplish eyes full of the expression Obinze often used to describe the people he liked: obi ocha. A clean heart.
I sought out opinions from a few of my friends who had read the book already. Caroline Shockley thoroughly enjoyed it; she says it seems to illuminate Adichie’s continuing struggle to fit in two worlds – America and Nigeria. “I feel it is a natural progression from her first two books based in Africa. I think she truly loves both but also sees the flaws in both.” Caroline also really liked how it illustrated that “you can be successful financially in countries other than America and have a good life in places other than here.”
I had to agree with my friend Sara Bhatia that one of the plot devices grew tiresome: “I found Adichie’s observations fascinating, but I really didn’t like the plot device of the blog. I suppose it was believable enough that Ifemelu might become a blogger (although her fabulous overnight success seems a little far-fetched), but I found the actual blog entries to be very heavy handed – it was as if Adichie worried that the reader wasn’t understanding the point being made in the narrative, so she needed a didactic bit of blogging to drive the point home. This seemed patronizing, and often redundant.” Sara loved other aspects of the book: “In general, I love a story about an expat (Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories about Indians in the US or London, or Zadie Smith’s Jamaicans and Muslims in White Teeth come to mind) – the friction of being out of one’s element pushes characters to self-awareness, and the reader’s introduction to unfamiliar customs illuminates the oddities of their own habits and culture. I think Adichie did a great job of depicting Ifemelu’s vulnerability and bewilderment as a young international student at an American university – a theme explored by Lahiri, but not for a female student, or one so young.” In the end, Sara still preferred Adichie’s earlier work, Half of a Yellow Sun.
I read Half of a Yellow Sun several years ago and am very distressed that I can only remember that I loved it, and not very much about it. I’m glad some people retain what they read!
At the very least, I know I’ll remember having read the big and ambitious books The Goldfinch and Americanah this year. I won’t forget Mary Oliver’s poetry collection, Dog Songs, for all its comfort and beauty in a time of grief. I’ll get back to you at the end of the year on others, and I’d really love to know the ones that you think will stay with you from this year.