I’ve been shamefully late on reading any books from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the most exciting Nigerian author if you believe the literary hype. Over the years, I've heard nothing but gushing praises about her books since she published Purple Hibiscus in 2003. So I made a solemn promise to myself at the start of this year to read one of her books and decided to pick up Americanah.
For me, reading Americanah was like eating at a 3-star Michelin restaurant that doesn't quite live up to its rating. The food is delicious and fills your stomach, but you can't help but be somewhat disappointed because it's a 3-star Michelin restaurant. Americanah is a great book; I would even go as far as to say it's an essential book as it examines contemporary Nigerian identity and the experiences of being black in America in a way no other book, to my knowledge, has. But with all the furore surrounding Adichie, I expected a stronger story. For all its acute, intelligent and enlightening observations on race, identify, and sex, Americanah’s love story felt perfunctory and predictable, becoming the least exciting part of the book.
What is it about?
Americanah tells the story of two contemporary Nigerians, the fiercely opinionated but intelligent Ifemelu and the bookish, American culture-loving Obinze. The two form a romantic relationship in Nigeria.
When Nigeria falls into a military dictatorship, throwing its educational system into disarray, Ifemelu travels to the USA to continue her studies and eventually wins a fellowship at Princeton. Despite his love for America and his desperation to move there, Obinze ends up going to London where he becomes an illegal immigrant. Desperate to reach America, Obinze goes to great lengths to arrange a sham marriage so he can obtain British citizenship and eventually head over to America.
Without spoiling what happens in the rest of the novel, Obinze and Ifemelu eventually reunite in Nigeria as two very different people. But can they rekindle their relationship after living in different countries for so long?
As a social commentary on Nigerian identity, the Nigerian diaspora in both America and England, racism in America and sexual attitudes in Nigeria, Americanah is in a class of its own. Adichie makes some very insightful observations about what it means to be black in America, not only as a black American but as an African in America. I never even considered it before but being African American and being African are two very different things in America. I learned a great deal about race relations in America reading Americanah.
The book contains passages taken from Ifemelu’s fictional blog on race relations that she decides to write when she’s been living in America for a while. These segments from Ifemelu’s blog post are brilliant, and I loved them. The wit, intelligence, and social commentary Adichie communicates through Ifemelu’s blog is a stroke of genius.
I also really enjoyed Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s characters. Whenever I ever read about or watch contemporary Nigerian characters, they are often just lazy stereotypes – loud, superficial women or untrustworthy, superficial men. And while these types of Nigerians do populate the book (every stereotype has a seed a truth), Obinze and Ifemelu felt like real people because Adichie wrote them with relatable characteristics and with a welcome nuance not often given to Nigerian characters.
The love story. At the heart of Americanah is the love story between Obinze and Ifemelu that beats as you expect it too. With the rest of the book filled with rich ideas and observations about race, identify and sex, the love story is just competent. It's safe. It's predictable. We learn that Obinze’s wife is superficial and does not understand Obinze. We learn that Obinze and Ifemelu still feel the same for each other after years apart. I know it’s a love story, therefore, comes with certain expectations as demanded by the genre but I wish Adichie could have made it less predictable.
Also, a lot of the story is about Ifemelu’s experiences in America much to the detriment of Obinze’s story in London. While Ifemelu’s story in America is captivating and I enjoyed reading about the relationship with her two American boyfriends, at times, it also really bored me. I didn't care about Ifemelu’s time in the hairdresser or about her being a babysitter for a wealthy family. These parts were unexciting, and I wish Adichie had fleshed out Obinze’s experience as an illegal immigrant in London a bit more.
Lastly, I felt that the book had too many secondary characters. We learn about a whole host of Obinze's and Ifemelu’s friends in Nigeria, and when Ifemelu is in America, she makes a whole bunch of other friends that Adichie introduces us to. I understand that these cast of characters reveal different facets of the themes Adichie is exploring in the novel, but I wish she had cut some of them down or combined them into one character.
Americanah is probably the best book written right now about race in America and the social experiences of contemporary Nigerians. Adichie is adept at observing how Americans treat people of colour and how Nigeria's society behaves, mainly its middle-class. The book is worth a read alone to learn about these themes. It will change how you view the dynamics and social constructs of race.
But the book’s love story is weak compared to its exceptional social commentary. Obinze and Ifemelu are fantastic characters, but the story of their love is underwhelming and undercooked, making the book feel a bit uneven because it's social commentary shines brighter than its actual love story. As a result, Americanah falls short of greatness, but it is still a quality read nonetheless.
Feel free to leave a comment below if you would like to share your opinion on this issue
If you're interested in keeping up with the latest topics on my blogs and updates on my upcoming books feel free to subscribe to my newsletter