Y’all. I think I’m in love with this book. Quick backstory: This book has been sitting on my shelf for almost two years. When I graduated from college, one of my favorite professors happened to be retiring that same year (Hi Bob). He had a ton of books on his shelf and told me to feel free to grab any of them. I don’t think I actually took any, but he gave me a copy of Americanah and told me this was a must-read. I thanked him and kind of forgot about it until this year. Now that I’m finished, I am so grateful to him for giving me this book. I’ve learned so much from it, and I hope this review will inspire someone to read it.
At its core, this book is both a story of immigration and a love story. It’s also kind of a coming-of-age story. It follows two characters – Ifemelu and Obinze – as they move through life. The book spans about 20+ years. They were childhood sweethearts. Ifemelu moves to the U.S. for university, and Obinze moves to England. Over time they lose contact, but it details the different things they learn about themselves and the cultures they have to adapt to throughout the story. It’s insightful, informative, and so fun to read.
Length: 588 pages (took me almost two weeks to get through this one)
Additional Sections: None – this book is 100% story.
Year Published: 2013
The Good Stuff
I would say that more of this story covers Ifemelu’s journey through America – which is fair because she spends much more time there than Obinze did in England. When she got to America, Ifemelu realized for the first time that she’s a black person. Race wasn’t a thing back home in Nigeria, so she’s learning so much about how race colors so much of how Americans see things and interact with each other.
Full disclosure: I’m a black American. I’m not an immigrant, and I’m not even the child of immigrants, although this book seemed to group children of immigrants with Americans. It was fascinating for me to read how she perceived how we speak and act. When she first moved to America, she’s a struggling college student and has to figure out how to pay rent and manage classes. I think Adichie did a great job of highlighting how difficult it is for students who are just figuring out how to make it on their own. This book educated me a lot on how much pressure immigrants feel to assimilate. Ifemelu spent time perfecting an American accent and trying to not stick out, which is a reality I’m sure many people face here. It made me happy when she stopped trying to cover her voice with an American accent.
One of the best parts of the book for me was Ifemelu’s blog, Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I thought it was creative, witty, and it was a great way to integrate social commentary perfectly into the story. Keep in mind this book was written in 2013. This is one year after Trayvon Martin was killed, and one year before Mike Brown was killed. The Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t on anyone’s mind when this book came out. I can’t even imagine reading this book as soon as it debuted. This is a groundbreaking novel. The ideas she shares about blackness, natural hair, colorism, and American privilege had to be completely new at the time they were released. I can see why this book has so many accolades and so much acclaim behind it – it generated conversations that people didn’t know were needed before, or that we simply didn’t know how to have.
I liked that Ifemelu was in relationships with two men (not simultaneously) who were basically the polar opposites of each other. Curt was a wealthy white guy who never really thought about race and didn’t see its connection to everyday situations. Blaine was a Yale professor and activist who discussed race and disadvantage all the time. Oddly enough, neither one of these men were quite right for Ifemelu. Curt didn’t understand why race had to be such a big issue, and Blaine didn’t think Ifemelu saw it as a big enough issue. He dismissed her lack of anger because she wasn’t black American, so he assumed it wasn’t as important to her.
Ifemelu is my favorite character in the book because she’s honest. She’s stubborn, but she has regular emotions. She has a desire to please, and she has parts of her own personality and way of thinking that annoy her. It’s refreshing. She’s a well-rounded character and she doesn’t delude herself into thinking she’s someone she’s not. I thought it was a great choice to have this story of “making it” in America run alongside the story of a girl figuring herself out and becoming a woman. It was beautiful to read.
In the book, Ifemelu is very close to her Aunty Uju and cousin Dike. Their story is told through their interaction with Ifemelu, but it goes in-depth enough to highlight some very important issues. Aunty Uju wants a man. She dates three different men throughout the course of the story, and the first two are terrible. It was interesting to read through her desperation and her idea of what a relationship is supposed to be – this woman was a doctor (!!) and was bending over backwards for these men. She was very traditional, and she put up with a lot in the hopes of finding a man who would take care of her and father more children for her. I’m sure many of us know women like this, and it was disheartening to see how they treated her.
Obinze moved to England and lived as an undocumented immigrant. He had to use other people’s names to work and lived in fear of being caught and deported back to Nigeria. This book doesn’t dive into all the particulars of the legal process of becoming an EU citizen, but it does detail all the corrupt people Obinze came across while he tried to marry a girl who was already a citizen. He met with a friend who had successfully assimilated into British culture, married a white British girl, and had forgotten all about his roots. Although England and America are very different, the people who forget about their culture are the same.
It was intriguing to me that Obinze was the one who was so obsessed with American culture in his childhood and he was the one that wasn’t able to get a visa. His time in England seemed like a period of confusion for him; he seemed lost when he was away from home. Eventually, Obinze does get deported and comes back to Nigeria – this isn’t a big secret, the author makes it clear he returns home very early on. He tried to forget Ifemelu after she stopped contacting him, but it was difficult. He ends up marrying another woman and having a baby with her a few years before Ifemelu tells him that she’s moving back home. The last few chapters detail their interaction with each other after she’s back in Lagos. Their love is poetic and aspirational, if you can ignore the fact that he’s married with a baby.
What I Would Change
Call me crazy, but I would’ve made it longer! Or I would’ve added an epilogue. Their relationship is still up in the air at the end (you’ll see what I mean when you read it), and I wanted more. I wanted to know how they ended up. Does he go through with leaving his wife? Do they end up getting married? Having kids? There’s so much I wanted to know. Either way, I would still say this is a near-perfect book. All the characters have depth, even the small ones. The relationships are not superficial; everything means something. The dialogue is purposeful. Americanah taught me so much about how I want to write my own book one day, and I’m so grateful to Chimamanda Adichie for writing this. I would say it’s a must-read for everyone. I don’t know how you could read this and not learn something from it.
Overall Rating: 10/10
Beyond reading more in 2020, one of my goals is to consume books by people of color – specifically black people. For women’s history month, I’m reading books by black women all month. The first one I’ll be reading is Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. I’m still going back and writing reviews for the first six books I read this year. I’ll post those reviews as I finish them, but I will always prioritize reviews of the books I’ve just finished. Please don’t hesitate to follow me on Instagram @purplediarypod and check back every week for a new review. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about being a guest on my podcast, giving podcast episode ideas, or suggesting topics for the blog. Thank you so much for reading!