Time on to-read: About two years
Reason for not picking up: No real good reason except that there were other distracting shiny things that absorbed me throughout the time that this was popular.
Reason for picking up now: I finally picked it up in the store along with a bunch of other novels and this was the one that passed my “didn’t stop reading to curiously check out the next thing” test.
Verdict: This is one of those where you see where the hype came from and it still makes sense after the initial excitement dies down. My bookstore test has still not failed me yet!
If I made a list of top ten things I thought I’d be talking about when I wrote this review, Jonathan Franzen would not have been on it. Nor would he have been on the top fifty or top one hundred lists, to be honest. But here we are. Because what Adichie has written is a very Franzen-like deep dive into the domestic and personal lives of a pair of former lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze. Each chapter, we take a deep breath and dive in to a scene from their lives over the course of their childhood, adolescence, or about the first ten years of their adulthood. The story looped around linear time, moving forward generally but sliding easily backwards into memory and formative moments as well- but each one so germane to the present moment that it never quite feels like a record-scratch flashback. We spend the majority of our time with Ifemelu, the female half of this lovers’ equation. She is a Nigeran woman and blogger who has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and is contemplating a move back home after over a decade in the states. Her hesitations about taking this step are the occasion for the story’s telling (and retelling, sometimes, from Obinze’s perspective). Piece by piece we slowly understand how she became the woman she is today.
There are three overarching archetypal stories being told here. Let’s talk about the one that likely had the most to do with making this book widely talked about, and deservedly so. As mentioned above, Ifemelu is a blogger. Her blog, we find out, focuses on making observations about race and racial relations from the perspective of a “Non-American Black”. She has interactions with both white Americans and African-Americans and writes about them as a launching pad for wider discussions. Many chapters are punctuated with the text of blog posts that she wrote about whatever experience has just been detailed or is about to be detailed in more typical narrative fashion. Her comments are intelligent, incisive and cut through a whole lot of the euphemisms, coding and around-the-bush walking that are a feature of many American conversations about race. They also anticipate, in large part, the conversations that would happen after Ferguson, by nearly a year. So if some of the comments feel familiar from articles and talks that have since happened, keep in mind when it was written- other people are likely rehashing/reposting her and not the other way around. Adichie has also continued to stay relevant in the continuing political conversation in the US about race and politics, both with her TEDx talk about feminism (which also became a book), and a searing article about our responsibility as citizens after the 2016 election. Her voice is intelligent and lucid and uncompromising, all of which are currently needed, and all of which made this part of the book feel the most Important. My bet is that these blog sections have been lifted out of the book and used as conversation starters in many a college class already.
The second arc is an immigrant story. This forms the core engine of the book. Ifemelu and Obinze both become immigrants, and each of their experiences forms the raison d’etre for how they end up as people and how their lives subsequently turn out. Their immigrant stories have the traditional beats of culture shock, some degree of cultural assimilation, financial challenges, professional challenges, homesickness, and rinse, cycle, repeat. But this version of the narrative was striking for a number of reasons- first, unfortunately, immigration from Africa (particularly the modern, not-slave-related kind) is not a story that is told as much in American immigration literature. The particularities of that and how they differed from other immigrant stories were fascinating to read about, and obviously intersected a lot with the blog plot. Second, Adichie really did not skip over the really dark parts of being a new immigrant, especially one without extra financial support, especially if you don’t have papers that allow you to work in the country. She dwells for a longer time than most narratives due about the mental, physical and, ultimately, spiritual costs of experiencing that kind of hopelessness and insecurity. She shows the kind of scars that leaves on your soul, the sort that doesn’t ever really get erased even if you do happen to have the one in a million rags to riches story. The sheer luck and whim and advantage involved in her characters’ successes is truly striking- and this, in particular, made this book feel immediately relevant to 2017. Every single person out there chanting about building a wall or keeping out refugees needs to read this immigrant story. Sometimes I’m at the point of thinking that nothing will stop the chanting- but if anything could, a thorough read of this story just might give some of them enough pause to at least be willing to listen.
The third thing that’s going on here, the one that gets much less play in reviews of this due to all the shiny and amazing things happening above is a coming of age tale, about the self-actualization of a girl inside a culture where she doesn’t fully fit, finding herself and her purpose through many challenges and coming out fully forged, made of strangely vulnerable steel. This is the Franzen part- I was really struck by the detail of her examination of domestic ways of being and how they come to be that way. Adichie’s character work on the two lovers, their families and those close to them was my favorite part of the novel. All the best lines come in this faucet of the story, everything that’s put just so and catches at your heart in just the right places. Her surprised moment with Cal “who wants to be the fucking love of your life, damnit!”, the careful, magical description of the night they met, Ifemelu’s lonely, sad moments watching her always-underselling herself-Aunty Uju, her empathy for ineffective, hapless Kimberley, those gorgeous rush-to-the-finish pages at the end, gasping it up whole:
“She heard his words like a melody and she felt herself breathing unevenly, gulping at the air. She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in he chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hand in his, both clasped on the table, and between them silence grew, an ancient silence they both knew. She was inside this silence and she was safe.”
This shows that not only is Adichie capable of accurate, searing observation- it shows all the feeling that is behind that. It shows all the wasted people that her characters could have been without everything else happening to them, all the other things that layer over their lives. I loved this part because it gave the novel it’s real emotional heft. These wonderful people that peek out right at the end, almost didn’t come to exist. Any one of a thousand obstacles could have deterred them from ever being able to step over their wounds and keep going. The possibility of Ifemelu and Obinze and their families, and how easy it would be to never become the people we know they are, that’s really why the rest of anything else we talked about above really matters. It was the most effective part of the novel to show these people as they could be and then take it away over and over again. It’s also this part of the novel that made me want to actually read more of her fiction, not just immediately follow all of her essays, talks and interviews. It’s this part that shows she’s got the literary chops to hang in there with the best of the writers around. I just wish there were so much more of it here.
That would be my major complaint about the novel (and I get that it happened for necessary reasons). The other thing I will say is that after awhile the story-blog post about race-story-blog-post-story-blog-post cycle got pretty wearing. At one point I wondered why she didn’t just write a book of essays- there’s more than enough material in here to do so. We started to wander into the place that makes me lose some interest and emotional tie to books like this- the place where it all becomes a straight lecture masquerading as fiction, with characters as mouthpieces for inauthentic observations that the author wants to put somewhere in the book. Had the book maybe been about 100 pages shorter, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. The literary quality could sometimes suffer for the sake of making larger points- points that I think could have been made by merely telling the story, rather than bringing in another blog post to state it more directly. I understand that these are important points and I read every word, but it did make this thing more of a march than the absorbing, engrossing world that it had been at the beginning. I have this same problem with writers like Shaw- when you let your rant overcome your characters, it makes people want to read less, and then you get less of an audience for what you want to say. Again, it’s a hard criticism to make though, because I get that so much of this is stuff that so many people need to hear in as many ways as possible and that maybe its too important to be any kind of subtle about it. I don’t know. But it made the reading experience into something else, and I thought I should note that for future readers so your expectations don’t get upset. Just know that this is coming and take it for what it is (and the important thing that it is) and know that the novel part you likely loved as much as I did is coming back soon.
I am looking forward to reading more Adichie- Io think my next read of hers is going to be her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. The structure here makes me think she’ll be great at short stories, and that more of what I loved most about her writing will be there. I am excited to keep following her in all her directions. It’s rare that someone talented, intelligent, incisive and as urgently relevant as she is comes along at exactly the right time. We’re lucky to have her.