Adapted from Goodreads: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
I admire the sharp observations and descriptions that fill this book, and I enjoyed reading it. Many times, I felt myself nodding. My immigrant experience is obviously very different, coming from a first-world country, and the only time I ever feel out of place In the U.S. is, ironically, at the immigration office where I am usually one of the few white people, but I can relate to the culture shock that Ifemelu experiences when she first arrives in the States. There are some things that still strike me as odd, even after having lived here for well over a decade: the sharp and sudden boundaries between rich and poor neighborhoods, the sometimes divisive fascination with where exactly a person is from, the forced avoidance of words like “black” or “fat.” I found many of them mentioned in this novel, and it was fun but also thought-provoking to read about them.
It was just as interesting to read about Ifemelu’s move back to Nigeria and to get a glimpse of how she had to adjust to a life that used to be so familiar to her.
Having said this, I am a bit surprised that I didn’t like this book much more than I actually did. It should not have taken me almost three weeks to read it. Even though it was easy to dive into Ifemelu’s world, I had no trouble putting the book aside at the end of a chapter at night. There are two reasons for this.
One, I didn’t feel like I fully got to know Ifemelu. When we see her grow up in Nigeria, she comes across as a strong girl who knows who she is and what she wants. I think Adichie does a good job showing how coming to America takes away her sense of self, but I would think that after living in the US for 10+ years, she would be less bewildered by her surroundings. In several situations, her actions surprised me and I saw no reason for them. I can’t even say that they seemed out of character because I am not sure what exactly her character is. Sure, I can explain her behavior to myself, but I don’t think Adichie is giving me enough to know whether my explanations are correct. Several time, I felt left hanging, and I didn’t like that.
Two, there are lots of people in this book, many of them are important at one time in Ifemelu’s life. But often, they simply and suddenly disappear when Ifemelu moves on, leaving me to wonder why so much time was spent bringing them to life. For example, quite a bit of time is spent on implying that something odd is going on with the family Ifemelu first babysits for. But the reader never finds out what it is. I thought the one-sentence mention late in the book that the wife loved her husband, but her husband loved only himself was unsatisfying. On top of this, there are lots of characters that left me to wonder why they were mentioned at all, like Blaine’s black, female best friend or his now-lesbian ex-girlfriend. I actually had some trouble keeping track of all the people mentioned in the section that talks about Obinze’s experience in England.
Ultimately, I was left feeling unsure about whether I got everything out of this book that it offers. But I plan to check out Adichie’s previous novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, not only because both have previously been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Price for Fiction, but also because I really like her style of writing.