You may notice that there was an uncharacteristically gap between my last post and this one. I was reading Americanah during most of that time–it is super long–but I was reading slowly. It’s been a busy few weeks!
At the beginning of that time, I went to an event put on by the Aspen Institute featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I saw her speak once before and I recommend it if you have the opportunity. She’s charming, hilarious and crazy-smart. There are a few talking points she hits in most of the interviews and articles that I’ve heard and read, such as not having been black until she moved to the United States, that I think are really important to contemplate.
When I read Adichie’s last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, I was obsessed with it–the story, the structure, the writing, the surprises, the devastating plot turns, and creative “reveal” at the end. I was prepared to feel the same way about this novel, but I actually didn’t, in the end. I keep writing sentences about why and none of them are quite accurate. I wanted it to be more focused, but in many ways it was extremely focused. Perhaps it was that it was thematically focused but hit some of the same or similar points more times than I felt like it needed to–not harder, but too often or for too long. We read about the central character Ifemelu’s serious relationships with three men, and less serious ones with quite a few more, and, by my count, at least five of her jobs. We know the names of so many of her friends, I can’t count now. What I didn’t like about this is that the book didn’t feel braided together. It felt episodic and a bit repetitive. I would have liked to boil the book down to just a few of these relationships and plot points. I loved reading about Ifemelu, her aunt, and her nephew and the way they all evolved over time. But because there was so much going on throughout, there were huge chunks of the novel in which they weren’t even referenced. I loved reading about Ifemelu getting her hair done in a salon in New Jersey, which was a framing device for a large section of the book, but not for the whole book. It felt a little destabilizing for me, and not in a good way, when it dropped off as a device. Ifemelu promises to do something at the end of that experience in the hair salon–something I actually thought would be important–and yet we never find out if she does. It gave me an uneasy feeling as the end of the book neared, not ever knowing what happened. Obviously, I misinterpreted how to take that detail.
In terms of the romantic relationships in the book, Ifemelu’s greatest love is Obinze, a fellow Nigerian. She also has a long relationship with a hunky white man and an American-born black man. Long, dramatic, and fully explicated–it just seemed like too much for one book. I didn’t have a problem with learning about these relationships, but I did with the level of detail. Because her relationships with each man other than Obinze had a concrete start and end, it seemed like they could have been tackled much more quickly to leave more space for the ongoing storylines. By the time Ifemelu finally gets back to Obinze, it actually felt rushed to me, which is strange in such a long book.
Speaking of Obinze, who was the protagonist of his own quite large section of the book, recounting his time in England trying to work without the legal right to do so, trying to arrange a marriage to keep him in the country–well, I might secretly wish that that part of the book was an entire book on its own. I loved him, I loved the writing, I loved the story. It did not feel didactic, which lots of Ifemelu’s sections necessarily did since they were in the form of blog posts about race; it tackled a lot of serious issues. but did so through story.
I realize now what would have solved all of my personal issues with this novel–I think what it comes down to is that I wish Americanah had been a collection of short stories. As a novel, it felt episodic in a way that didn’t work. If it had actually been organized as a linked collection, I think the structure would have made a world more sense.