Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie carries a dozen boldly sketched characters through 588 engrossing pages with a tale that pokes into our (surprisingly sensitive) national and racial selves.
The Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, has a successful but difficult sojourn in America, where modern versions of the Ugly American fawn and preen and put their feet in their mouths over her blackness and Nigerian-ness. After she returns to Nigeria she explains, “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black.” We feel her relief.
On the other hand, Nigeria is corrupt, pushy, dangerous, and uncertain, hot and humid, and unsentimental about human life. It is, however, a place where she has power, connections, and a past, and where the food is to her liking. Speaking of food, on her first day in America she is left in charge of her young nephew and has to make him lunch. In Nigeria, lunch is always a hot meal, but she is called upon to make a “sandwich,” a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the end. I have never looked at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the outside – it has been such a staple of life – but it suddenly looked strange to me. The nephew also finds it hilarious that she eats peanuts with bananas.
A native American is treated to an often amusing objective view of our methods of marriage, romance, education, and child-rearing. At one point, Ifemelu’s aunt complains that lax American parents don’t even hit their children.
By dissecting Nigerian and American life, Adichie suggests that we all are warped and conditioned to odd things by our cultures, and suggests even more strongly that taking a trip somewhere else and looking back at ourselves from the outside is a good idea.
I love the forthright, intelligent Ifemelu, and love her soulmate Obinze every bit as much. I wish I had known Obinze’s mother, and am forever grateful not to have had Ifemelu’s Bible-spouting mother as my own. I felt weaved into the lives of these people, and have come out the better for having met them.
It will be a while before I read another book of Adichie’s. The truth of this story will take a while to absorb – then I will pick up another, confident that she will lead me once again into territory I have never seen before.
National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction; named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. Adichie is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.