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Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4/5)

9 Feb

I read this book too slowly. I started the audiobook later than I intended to in order to meet an end-of-year challenge deadline and I missed being anywhere close to finishing it by my book club meeting. With no pressure to finish it, I slowed down even more and took almost a month longer than the meeting before I finished it. It’s not that the book was bad, but it was long. And without commutes, running, or much of anything going on, audiobooks are not a fast medium for me.

Cover image via Amazon

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Amazon:

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time.

Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland. 

In the end, I was left a bit confused by this book. On one hand, it’s about race in America and Ifemelu’s observations of race and reflections on how it affects people. On the other hand, it’s a love story about two people living in Nigeria, where they clearly say race is not a factor. While these are both good stories, they’re not very well related, yet they live together in this book. I liked both stories, I enjoyed the insights about love and race, but it felt disconnected to me which took away from my overall enjoyment.

Ifemelu and Obinze were amazing characters and I loved them both. I felt like Ifemelu was more the main character and her story was a lot stronger. Her life in America, the life she formed for herself and the way she observed American culture was great. I laughed a lot at her blog posts, both her tone and her bold observations. I liked the ways she navigated America and I felt the hardships she faced were very real and I understood why she felt the way she did about my culture.

Obinze surprised me the most. I was a bit surprised when he decided to move to the UK. I would have understood better if he’d gone for school, but going to work seemed weird to me. If he had a job lined up, something that was going to pay well, that was one thing. But going to work whatever job he could, it seemed he would have been better off in Nigeria. I was a bit surprised by his sudden success because the lifestyle it afforded him seemed out of line with the character we’d learned up until that point. It was clear he wasn’t chasing that life, but I didn’t expect him to be so comfortable in it.

I didn’t relate to a character, but I related to the America Ifemelu described. I saw my city and my school and even myself in her observations. I realized things that I had accepted as ‘standard’ that need to be challenged. I realized how funny certain ‘normal’ things might seem to someone on the outside. I learned to laugh at myself and get why I need to open my eyes and realize that what I consider OK might need to change.

Ifemelu’s blog posts were my favorite part of the story. I think the men she dated in America made it easier for her to make some of the observations she did and that might have helped her write it (and been a bit convenient for the writer). Curt’s wealth got her into parts of society most people can’t even imagine. It also showcased white privilege and prejudices as old as America. Her relationship with Blane let her give a commentary on the Black American experience and contrasted with her time with Curt. I would have liked if she had some more friends to help create these dichotomies but the resulting observations were wonderful anyway.

The end of the book wasn’t great for me (spoilers ahead). I was happy when she and Obinze got back together, but I was reserved about it as well. I didn’t like that he was married and how she accepted this at first, being okay with her role as a mistress. I didn’t like how she would ignore the truth. She had come really far in her self-realization journey and this seemed like a major step back. And I found it hard to believe she was going to be comfortable with their arrangement long term. It seemed like a sudden ending no one was going to be happy living with.

The audiobook was narrated by Adjoa Andoh who did an amazing job. I wasn’t a huge fan of some of her American accents, which came off as a bit nasal, but I could ignore it for the beautiful voices she gave all the other characters. Her voices helped me keep the cast of characters separate and enjoy the story being told to me. I’d listen to another book read by her in a heartbeat.

Race was clearly the main theme of this book, even if it didn’t fit well with the overall plot of Ifemelu and Obinze. The observations Ifemelu makes about race and racial relations in America take over the book and the long period of time she spends in America, becoming the titular Americanah, dominates the length of the book. Dike’s story really highlights the experiences she talks about. His experience is more similar to an American-born Black because of his appearance and he is subjected to prejudice and injustice throughout his childhood. Yet at home, his mother holds different ideas of identity and sees him and herself as different from American-born Blacks. His first-generation immigrant experience isn’t like those who have different external appearances because his is tinged by racial assumptions. He was a great character in this book to help highlight this experience.

Writer’s Takeaway: Adichie is known to be outspoken about feminism and race. Using a novel to share this was a great medium, though it seemed a bit heavy-handed at times. Ifemelu’s story in America was great on its own and Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story was great on its own. Combining them was a bit too much for me and I think contributed to the length of this book and a bit of a rushed ending. Maybe this would have been better as two books.

An enjoyable read though a bit too much for one title. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 2000-Present time period of the 2021 When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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