The Keen Eyes of the Outsider

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, supposedly slated for an upcoming film adaptation, provides a perspective that sheds light on the construction of race in America, as well as other problematic myths about America’s greatness, by providing us a tale of an immigrant who returns to live in her home country because she wants to, not because she’s forced to.

Part 1

Chapter 1: Ifemelu heads from Princeton to Trenton to get her hair braided for her move back to Nigeria after 13 years in America. She thinks about the end of her “lifestyle” blog about race and talks to her Senegalese hairdresser Aisha about her move back, surprising herself when she says she’s going to “see my man.” She’s just broken up with her black American boyfriend Blaine for the move, and has been thinking about her university boyfriend Obinze, whom she knows is married with a child now. While trying to avoid talking to Aisha, Ifemelu writes Obinze an email to tell him she’s moving back.

Chapter 2: We switch to Obinze’s point of view in Lagos, Nigeria, as he receives her email when he’s being driven home from work. He’s apparently done quite well for himself, but Obinze is not sure he’s happy with his life. His light-skinned wife Kosi is pleased when mistaken for being mixed race. Tonight they’re going to a party at the Chief’s, the man who helped Obinze get started in his present real-estate career; he has a vague premonition that the Chief will eventually ask for something unsettling in return for his favors, like helping with an assassination. At the party his wife and some women discuss possible British or French schools for his daughter, though Obinze would prefer a Nigerian one. He’s bored at the party and on the way home thinks about how paranoid his wife’s become that he’ll cheat on her. At home, he writes back to Ifemelu, whom he has perhaps more than fond memories of.

Part 2

Chapter 3: Back at the hairdresser, Aisha wants Ifemelu to talk to her two Igbo boyfriends to convince them to marry her, since they claim they can only marry Igbo women and Ifemelu says she knows Igbo men who have married others, but Ifemelu does not want to talk to these men. Ifemelu challenges Aisha when she uses the wrong comb. She then starts to think about her mother’s hair and how long and amazing it was until the day she was “saved” and came home and chopped it all off. She became an extreme religious nut until the day she claimed to have seen an angel who told her to switch to a less strict congregation. Ifemelu’s father lost his civil-servant job for refusing to call his new female boss “Mommy,” and the landlord comes by and demands rent. She thinks about her Aunty Uju, ten years older than her, whom she’s always had a special bond with for giving her more practical advice than her religious mother.

Chapter 4: Obinze and Ifemelu’s courtship: Obinze moves to town when she’s in high school while his mother, a professor, is on a two-year sabbatical, and he quickly becomes popular. His friends want him to go out with Ifemelu’s best friend Ginika, but at the party where they introduce them, he instead asks Ifemelu to dance. His friends had told him Ifemelu was too much trouble and argumentative, but he prefers that. They talk for a long time at the party and she asks him to kiss her. They say they love each other after a few weeks and she’s worried about how happy she is.

Chapter 5: Ginika gets ready to leave for America with her family, and Ifemelu realizes that she doesn’t fit in with Obinze and the rest of his friends, who have all been abroad; Obinze is obsessed with America. (The term “Americanah” is first introduced in this chapter–someone who has returned from America and adopted American idiosyncrasies.) His mother invites her for lunch and she starts going over there regularly; one day when the mother leaves and realizes they’ve been fooling around while she was gone, she takes Ifemelu into her room and warns her about the dangers of sex and asks her to wait, and get Obinze to agree to wait, and to tell her when they start having sex.

Chapter 6: Ifemelu is fascinated by Aunty Uju’s nice house (with a couple of servants) in Dolphin Estate; Uju has a good job that “the general” got for her; he sees her occasionally even though he’s married. Ifemelu asks to live with Aunty Uju during the school week but her father refuses. He needs money for rent still and when Ifemelu mentions this to Uju she says that she doesn’t actually have any money because she has not been receiving an actual salary at her job; the general wants to make her ask for what she needs. Ifemelu meets him when he comes over for dinner a few times. Once he promises to come over for a holiday and Uju goes to a lot of trouble for him but he cancels at the last second, and when Uju yells at her servant after Uju spills the soup she made and Ifemelu says she should be yelling at the general, Uju slaps her and the dynamic between them changes. Then Uju gets pregnant by the general and he sends her to America to have the baby, which she gives her own surname. Right after the baby’s first birthday, the general dies in a plane crash, and his relatives come to the house demanding Uju leave. She uses her American visa from the pregnancy to escape them.  

Chapter 7: Ifemelu and Obinze end up going to the same university in the same town Obinze used to live and that his mother has moved back to. The professors have to strike frequently because they’re not being paid and so Ifemelu has to go back to Lagos without Obinze and starts spending some time with another boy, causing a temporary rift between her and Obinze. Back at school they finally have sex and Ifemelu gets sick almost immediately and is worried she’s pregnant, but the tests come back negative. It turns out her appendix is inflamed and she has to have it taken out. Obinze’s mother then talks to them about safe sex.

Chapter 8: With so many university strikes Uju suggests Ifemelu come to study in America; she applies and gets in and doesn’t expect to get a visa but does. When she says goodbye to Obinze’s mother, his mother tells her that she and Obinze need to make a plan; their plan is he will join her in America as soon as he graduates.

Chapter 9: We return to the hair salon briefly, the intense heat there a segue back to the first time Ifemelu experienced an American heat wave, when she first arrived in America. Uju picks her up and she stays in her apartment in Brooklyn, babysitting Uju’s son Dike. She notices that America has subdued Uju, who complains about the three jobs she has to work and that she failed her last medical exam; she had thought things would be better by now.

Chapter 10: Exposition about Ifemelu’s “summer of waiting.” She hangs out with the neighbor Jane until Jane’s husband Marlon hits on her. She babysits Dike and teaches him long division, eats a lot of American junk food, and watches a lot of TV, until the excessive news reports of crime make her scared to go outside.

Chapter 11: Uju has a man, Bartholomew, who comes to dinner, and Ifemelu doesn’t like him and later reads some of what he’s written online about Nigerians in America, which is largely condescending. She thinks back home Uju wouldn’t have given a man like him the time of day, but when she tells Uju this Uju says they are not in Nigeria. Uju finally passes her medical exams. Ifemelu takes Dike for a day at Coney Island before she leaves for school.   

Chapter 12: Ginika welcomes Ifemelu to Philadelphia. She marvels at how Americanized Ginika has become, very different from Aunty Uju and concludes that being younger, Ginika was more able to pick up cultural cues. Ifemelu finds a room in a house with three other girls and continues to experience bafflement at certain American habits (not dressing up for or dancing at parties, not paying for someone else when you invite them out to eat).

Chapter 13: Ifemelu tries and fails to find a job using her Aunty Uju’s friend’s ID.

Chapter 14: Ifemelu starts classes and continues to experience American anomalies, like a discussion of the word “nigger” in a film class. She starts reading American novels to help her understand America. She meets a Kenyan in the film class who’s president of the African Student Association, and starts going to meetings. She still can’t find a job. Uju calls to say she’s going to move to Massachusetts with Bartholomew.  

Chapter 15: Through Ginika, Ifemelu almost gets a job babysitting but then doesn’t. With her rent overdue, she goes back to a man, a tennis coach, who had offered to pay her to help him “relax” that she recognized as extremely sketchy. She tells him she won’t have sex with him, but lets him put his hand between her legs and gives him a hand job. He pays her a hundred dollars. Filled with self-loathing, she stops going to classes and taking Obinze’s calls. Ginika finally gets ahold of her through her roommate to tell her the babysitter who almost hired her before now does want to hire her. As she drives Ifemelu to the woman Kimberly’s house, she tells Ifemelu she thinks Ifemelu is depressed.

Chapter 16: Ifemelu gets a signing bonus from Kimberly but still can’t bear to talk to Obinze because she’s afraid to tell him what happened. She deletes his emails and doesn’t read a letter he sends. Morgan, the older child she babysits, is hard on the father, Don, but listens to Ifemelu. Ifemelu insults Kimberly’s sister Laura by calling her out for talking about things in Africa she doesn’t have enough info about. Aunty Uju says Dike’s teachers in Massachusetts want to put him in special ed.

Chapter 17: Ifemelu decides to stop faking an American accent when she talks to a telemarketer who tells her she sounds American, and the same day she meets Blaine on a train. They exchange numbers, but when she calls him he never answers. When she gets to Uju’s in Massachusetts, which she was on her way to when she met Blaine, Uju unleashes a torrent of complaints about her predominantly white community there.

Chapter 18: We go back to the salon, where a rowdy woman from South Africa comes in who bad mouths Nigerians, followed by an overly inquisitive white woman. Back in the past, Ifemelu starts dating Kimberly’s cousin Curt (under somewhat coercive circumstances); Curt is a “true believer” in happiness.

Chapter 19: Ifemelu and Curt brunch frequently with Curt’s mother, who doesn’t like her. They go on a boating trip with Morgan, who was “disgusted” by the news of their relationship at first but really enjoys the trip. Curt and Ifemelu joke about marriage. He wants her to quit babysitting but she says she needs a job, and starts to look for what she might do after graduation; the prospects for non-American citizens are not great. Curt gets her an interview at a firm that will help her get a green card. Her career adviser at school tells her to lose her braids for it, and she gets her scalp burned and scabbed after having her hair professionally relaxed, but she gets the job. (We get a blog post discussing what different racial groups aspire to, wondering what the group at the top, WASPs, have to aspire to.)

Chapter 20: Ifemelu moves to Baltimore for the job and likes living there. Her hair starts falling out from the chemicals in relaxer, and her friend Wambui from the ASA convinces her to cut it off and go natural. She hates the way it looks at first but finds a web forum for natural hair online and starts to get into it. She discovers emails on Curt’s computer that he’s been exchanging with another woman, but he claims nothing happened and she forgives him. (And we get one of her blog posts about why black women love Barack Obama–because he didn’t marry a light-skinned black woman.)

Chapter 21: Ifemelu brings Curt to Aunty Uju’s, where he’s relatively well-received. Shortly afterward Uju announces she’s leaving Bartholomew and moving to a new town. (We get a blog post about how Non-American Blacks coming to America will automatically be categorized as black.)  

Chapter 22: Ifemelu runs into her high school friend Kayode at a mall, and he tells her that Obinze, whom he’s in touch with, is in England. Ifemelu emails him later that day, using her pet name for him (“Ceiling”) and apologizing for her long silence.

Part 3

Chapter 23: We switch to Obinze in London. A couple of years after his arrival there, he’s arranging to pay for a sham marriage through some Angolans. He meets the girl, Cleotilde, and they like each other. He sees the name of an old friend on the marriage registration board when he goes to an administrative office and we segue back to his time after graduation in Nigeria, when he was immediately turned down for an American visa, and his long-time plan was dashed. When his mother goes to an academic conference in London, she lists him as her research assistant and gets him a UK visa for six months.

Chapter 24: Obinze’s first job is cleaning toilets in an office. When someone leaves a coiled turd on a toilet lid he leaves without cleaning it, then that same day gets Ifemelu’s apology email. He doesn’t respond because he has nothing worth telling her. He lives with his cousin Nicholas, who tells him the first thing he needs is an NI number so he can work, then to marry an EU citizen so he can get his papers. Nicholas is married to Obinze’s mother’s former favorite student, and she is now a subservient wife raising their children to be overachievers. Obinze sometimes listens to her gossip with her friends.

Chapter 25: The first person Obinze visits in England is his secondary schoolmate Emenike, who says he’s excited to see him but then is always too busy to. Obinze calls another old schoolmate, Iloba, who introduces him to a guy named Vincent who offers Obinze an NI number for 35% of the wages Obinze makes working with it.

Chapter 26: Obinze gets a job at a detergent-packing warehouse after he quits the toilet-cleaning job. His boss takes a liking to him. He often makes deliveries with a young guy named Nigel who wants his advice on women.

Chapter 27: Once a week Obinze goes to a bookstore to read and there he meets a woman with a son who looks at him with longing but they don’t exchange contact info. He has slept with a Zibabwean who’s hinted she might help him get his papers but he thought their situation was too complicated. He’s never felt so lonely.

Chapter 28: One day the men are weird at the warehouse and Obinze thinks he’s somehow been reported but then they turn out to be celebrating his birthday–that is, Vincent’s birthday. Then Vincent calls that same day to demand more of his wages. Obinze tries to call his bluff, but then Vincent does report him and he has to leave the warehouse. Years later, he calls Nigel to offer him a job when the Chief needs a white man.

Chapter 29: The Angolans demand more money for the marriage arrangements and Obinze calls Emenike, and when they have drinks, Emenike, who is ostentatious about his success, gives him a thousand pounds instead of the loan of five hundred he asks for. Obinze goes to a dinner party at Emenike’s house and meets his older English wife Georgina and their friends and is put off by Emenike’s pretensions.

Chapter 30: Moments before Obinze marries Cleotilde to become a legal citizen, he’s arrested for his visa being expired. Nicholas and his wife visit him in holding before he’s flown back to Nigeria.

Part 4

Chapter 31: Ifemelu has broken up with Curt because she cheated on him with her neighbor, whom she was merely “curious” about having sex with, and Kurt was unwilling to forgive her. A few years later she’s at a dinner party in Manhattan and gets tipsy and starts going off about race and how no one tells the truth about it. Curt sometimes observed the racism they encountered but frequently was oblivious to it. After Curt makes a comment about one of her black magazines being “racially skewed” and she writes to her old friend about dragging him to a bookstore and showing him all the other magazines, the friend suggests she start a blog. We get a blog post about Michelle Obama’s hair.

Chapter 32: Ifemelu tries to remember who she was before Curt. Her parents come to visit; her mother wants to know if she might get married. She quits her job. (A quick blog post asking doctors if race is verifiably genetically different.)

Chapter 33: Ifemelu’s blog starts getting her paid advertisers and speaking gigs (she figures out the latter is just interested in being told what they want to hear). She invites commenters to post stories of their own experiences.

Chapter 34: Ifemelu runs into Blaine again at a blogger’s conference (he blogs about the intersection of academia and pop culture) and they start dating (he was in a relationship when they first met). He is a “man of careful disciplines” with a rigid moral compass who intermittently judges some of the things she does. She meets his best friend and tells her parents about him. We get a blog post about how in America there is racism but no racists.

Chapter 35: Ifemelu meets Blaine’s high-maintenance sister Shan, who has a memoir coming out about growing up black in a white community. Blog post on Obama as the Magic Negro.

Chapter 36: A birthday party with Blaine’s friend Marcia at which racial topics come up and Ifemelu’s blog is praised and during which Obama is announcing his candidacy. They go to a talk by his ex (who’s with a woman now) and and Ifemelu is slightly jealous. A blog post about traveling when black.

Chapter 37: Dike is six feet tall, charismatic, and has a girlfriend. Ifemelu and Blaine go to one of Shan’s pretentious “salons” at which Shan rants about race and the issues with her book’s release. A blog post about whether Obama’s black (he is).

Chapter 38: Ifemelu and Blaine have a near breakup fight when Ifemelu goes to a lunch with a professor Blaine dislikes (who’s the one who tells her to apply for the fellowship at Princeton) instead of to a protest Blaine organized, then lied to him about it. A blog post about being poor and black being worse than being poor and white.

Chapter 39: Ifemelu stays in Willow with Aunty Uju and Dike, and Dike is blamed for a hacking incident he didn’t have anything to do with and experiences racism in other ways that he laughs off. Finally, Blaine takes her back, but their relationship is changed. A blog post about white people claiming racism is complex as an excuse to not talk about it.     

Chapter 40: Ifemelu and Blaine bond over Barack Obama, who’s elected president, a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. (And she got the fellowship.) A blog post about having a white friend who “gets it” say all the things you can’t say about racism.

Chapter 41: Back at the salon, Aisha asks how she got her papers, a taboo question, but Ifemelu tells her she got her green card through her job sponsoring her. Aisha breaks down sobbing about the probability of never seeing her parents again and Ifemelu offers to go talk to the Igbo guy she’s trying to get to marry her. On her way home, Aunty Uju calls with the news that Dike just tried to kill himself by overdosing on Tylenol.

Part 5

Chapter 42: Obinze writes a long email to Ifemelu about how his mother died. She responds immediately saying she’ll call then he responds with something he worries is coming on too strong. Even though she doesn’t reply, he writes her emails about what happened to him in England. Finally she writes back and tells him what happened to Dike. Obinze is distracted as he visits potential nursery schools with his wife. He reads Ifemelu’s blog and doesn’t recognize her in it.

Part 6

Chapter 43: Ifemelu, deeply affected by Dike’s suicide attempt, puts off her departure for Nigeria, but eventually he tells her he’s fine and that she should go.

Part 7

Chapter 44: Ifemelu gets to Lagos and is somewhat overwhelmed. She stays with her old friend Ranyinudo, who’s dating a married CEO. When Ifemelu can’t breathe in the humidity, Ranyi calls her an Americanah.

Chapter 45: Ifemelu starts working for a women’s magazine run by a rich woman as a hobby and gets an apartment. She doesn’t tell Obinze she’s back yet.

Chapter 46: Ifemelu lies to her parents and her friends that she’s still with Blaine and that he’s coming over soon. Her old friends are preoccupied with weddings and marriage.

Chapter 47: The office staff at the magazine is small: a woman who always tries to get Ifemelu to go to church, a woman, Doris, who also went to college in America and thinks this makes her and Ifemelu better than the others, and Zemaye, who hates Doris.

Chapter 48: Doris gets Ifemelu to go to a gathering of people who have come back from abroad, and they all talk about what they miss from America. Ifemelu finds them obnoxious though she knows that she’s like them.

Chapter 49: Ifemelu is bored with the work the magazine is doing. Her boss turns down a more interesting profile she wants to run and she thinks about starting her own blog. She finds out her coworker is taking unlabeled medicine her doctors gave her for typhoid and wants to write about that. She has a confrontation with Doris about the content (they run profiles on boring rich people because those people paid the magazine to profile them) and quits.

Chapter 50: Dike comes to visit the day after she starts her new blog (“The Small Redemptions of Lagos”). She writes about the Nigerpolitan club that Doris took her to. Then she writes another post “about the expensive lifestyles of some young women in Lagos” and her friend Ranyi gets mad at her since it’s about her so Ifemelu takes it down. Dike leaves and Ifemelu gets mad at Ranyi for not understanding his suicide attempt.

Chapter 51: Ifemelu keeps thinking she sees Obinze everywhere so she finally calls him; they meet up immediately at a bookstore and reconnect. Then the next day they have lunch at her place and, after they kiss, she finally tells him about the tennis coach and why she cut off contact with him.

Chapter 52: Ifemelu and Obinze ostensibly start dating, going to a bunch of different places, Ifemelu enjoying Lagos, though still occasionally revealing American predilections. One day she brings up having sex, forcing the issue of his cheating. They have sex.

Chapter 53: Ifemelu and Obinze continue their affair and avoid talking about his wife; when she does come up once, Ifemelu gets upset. Obinze invites her to come on a trip to Abuja with him, but then texts her that he wants to go alone so he can think things through; she texts back “Fucking coward.” He visits but she is not appeased by his talking about his responsibilities, and he leaves.

Chapter 54: From Obinze’s POV in Abuja, wavering about whether he made the right decision to not bring Ifemelu. He haggles with a businessman who wants to buy some of his land and who complains about Igbo people compared to other Nigerian populations; Obinze eventually agrees to his price. He thinks about Ifem and how she said she wanted to raise her kids in Nigeria. He gets a call from his wife on his way home and thinks about when his daughter was born and how Kosi was disappointed it wasn’t a boy. He’s rude at a dinner with his wife and Nigel and Nigel’s girlfriend, and claims to be sick to Kosi that night to explain his mood. The next morning he tells her he loves someone else and wants a divorce, and she says he can’t just break up the family because his old girlfriend came back; he’s surprised that she already knew he was cheating. The next day they go to his friend’s daughter’s christening party, and he tells his friend he wants a divorce; the friend tells him his reason isn’t good enough.  

Chapter 55: Ifemelu finally sees the mating dance of the male peacock she can see from her window. She has constant memories of Obinze, but writing her blog posts she is at peace: “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.” She calls and catches up with Blaine and Curt. She runs into Fred, a guy she met at the Nigerpolitan club, and starts dating him, but doesn’t feel much for him. Then after seven months without seeing each other, Obinze shows up at her flat and tells her he’s left his wife, though he still wants to see his daughter as much as possible. Ifemelu seems reticent at first but when he says he’s going to keep chasing her, she invites him in. The End.

The novel’s chronic tension is pretty much Ifemelu’s entire personal history, while the acute tension is her return to Nigeria from America. What’s at stake in her return is primarily what will happen between her and Obinze, who comprises a significant element of her past, and their relationship provides the structure for the book. The question the reader is reading to find the answer to is not just what will happen to Ifemelu, but what will happen to Ifemelu and Obinze; this is why the book is not exclusively from Ifemelu’s point of view, but has several chapters from Obinze’s. But while the outcome of their relationship provides the novel’s primary dramatic focus, Ifemelu’s relationships with America and with Nigeria are also at stake. These are not separate from the Obinze thread, however; rather, these threads are one and the same. Her relationship with Obinze is symbolic of her relationship with Nigeria, her home country. Her separation from Obinze coincides with her separation from her country, and her return to Obinze coincides with her return to her country, albeit not neatly. She does not break up with him as soon as she leaves, and she does not reunite with him immediately upon her return, symbolizing the periods of adjustment she had to go through upon leaving and returning. It takes her time to assimilate to America, and, once so assimilated, it takes her time to readjust upon her return.

In terms of structure, Adichie does not start at the beginning, with Ifemelu’s childhood, but rather picks a point dictated by the acute tension—preparation for the return to Nigeria. The hair-braiding provides a nice point for this because of its racial significance (we’ll come to find out that her relationship with her hair has been a significant part of her American journey). Hair also provides the segue back into the past via the discussion of her mother’s hair. Adichie stays with Ifemelu long enough in the present before this segue that the reader has generated enough of an interest in her to care about her past. The opposing settings of the opening—uppity Princeton and ghetto Trenton—also set us up for one of the novel’s main conflicts, the opposing settings of Nigeria and America. Ifemelu has to go to Trenton because the overwhelmingly white Princeton has no places where she can get her hair braided, since such places exist only “in the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people.” Adichie’s actually providing a structural blueprint with the opening description of Princeton and how it smells segueing into descriptions of other places she’s lived:

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell.

The narrative will eventually delve much more deeply into Ifemelu’s experiences in these different American locations, though interestingly this opening does not present these locations in the order Ifemelu experiences them (which would be Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven).  

The acute tension thread stays in the hair salon through Part 4. Ifemelu undergoes a significant change in her time in the salon in that she goes from not wanting to talk to Aisha’s Igbo boyfriends at the beginning to volunteering to go seek one out after Aisha breaks down in front of her, making her realize that she’s been more privileged in her experience as an immigrant via her white boyfriend helping get her a job that got her a green card. This change is also symbolic of how much what’s happened in her past has changed her. At this point in the narrative, the descriptions of her past have caught up to the present, which means that structurally, she can now leave the hair salon. That we’ve reached a climactic point in the narrative is further underscored by her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt as soon as she leaves. This attempt comes as a surprise to both Ifemelu and the reader, since Dike’s presented as relatively well-adjusted. In retrospect, however, his laughing at the racism he endured, like the hacking incident he was nonsensically accused of, becomes much more sinister, causing the reader to question how deeply Ifemelu herself has been affected by her American experiences.

One of the other main conflicts, really the same conflict, as previously mentioned, is who is the love of Ifemelu’s life (with the question of love translating symbolically to which one she loves more, America or Nigeria):

she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine—“You are the absolute love of my life,” he’d written in her last birthday card…

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart. I want to be the fucking love of your life,” Curt said with a force that startled her.

Ifemelu’s experiences in America are significantly colored (so to speak) by these two, her primary American boyfriends; it certainly does not seem a coincidence that one is white and one black. But neither Curt nor Blaine are the love of her life; Obinze is. Which means that America is not the love of her life, but Nigeria is. This theme of people being representative of their country is underscored by Obama’s election going on during her relationship with Blaine:

On election night, before Blaine kissed her, his face wet with tears, he held her tightly as though Obama’s victory was also their personal victory.

A slightly different version of chapter 2 of the novel appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2011 as “Ceiling.” This is Obinze’s only POV chapter until we get several chapters about him in Part 3, and as such, it makes sense that its content could stand alone as a story. The real reason the novel starts with Ifemelu getting her hair braided is not just because of the racial implications, but because being at the salon provides the opportunity for her to email Obinze to tell him she’s coming back (because she’s trying to avoid talking to Aisha). Receiving this email provides the acute tension of the second chapter and the “Ceiling” story. Its time frame basically ranges from when Obinze gets her email to when he writes his own email back in response; in seeing what he’s doing between these two points, the reader gets a full picture of his current life and his desire to escape it. By focusing on Ifemelu and Obinze as two main characters in separate but connected threads in the first two chapters, the reader is immediately rooting for them to get together. That the portrait of Obinze’s life we see in chapter 2 includes a wife—a wife terrified of his cheating, no less—significantly raises the tension. Then there’s Ifemelu’s supposedly made-up reason for Aisha about why she’s returning to Nigeria, to “see my man.” It turns out this made-up reason is, in fact, true.

The first two chapters alternate Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s perspectives, and so do the last two chapters, though the last two aren’t sectioned off as a separate Part like the first two. Part I takes place in the present, and Part 2 goes into Ifemelu’s past, though notably returns to the present narrative in the salon briefly at the point in the past when Ifemelu transitions to America. Part 3 is the thread of Obinze’s past in England. Part 4 picks up Ifemelu’s past thread where it left off at the point of her breakup with Curt and takes us through her relationship with Blaine, culminating with Obama’s election, and then returns to the present with her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt. Part 5 is a single chapter going back to Obinze in the present. Part 6 is also only a single chapter picking up with Ifemelu’s present thread, still in America. Part 7 tracks her return to Nigeria. Since Obinze and Ifemelu are no longer on separate continents by the end, their points of view don’t need to be separated into different Parts.

Experiencing America through Ifemelu’s point of view, getting an immigrant’s perspective on it, is one of the novel’s strengths, and demonstrative of a strength of fiction in general. The details of Ifemelu’s observed experience as an outsider are meticulous:

Before, she would have said, “I know,” that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge…

She had thought of them as “big,” because one of the first things her friend Ginika told her was that “fat” in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like “stupid” or “bastard,” and not a mere description like “short” or “tall.”

She was agreeable, and smooth-tongued, but Ifemelu could tell that she thought her customer was a troublemaker, and there was nothing wrong with the cornrow, but this was a part of her new American self, this fervor of customer service, this shiny falseness of surfaces, and she had accepted it, embraced it. When the customer left, she might shrug out of that self and say something to Halima and to Aisha about Americans, how spoiled and childish and entitled they were, but when the next customer came, she would become, again, a faultless version of her American self.

But when Ifemelu returned with the letter, Cristina Tomas said, “I. Need. You. To. Fill. Out. A. Couple. Of. Forms. Do. You. Understand. How. To. Fill. These. Out?” and she realized that Cristina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling.

As one might deduce from Ifemelu’s relationship with Obinze standing in for Ifemelu’s relationship with Nigeria, Adichie is a writer who excels at the use of the objective correlative. In a passage from Obinze’s point of view in the penultimate chapter, he’s haggling with a Nigerian he’s trying to sell some land to:

“Okay, Edusco,” Obinze said, suddenly feeling drained. “I am not going to eat the land if I don’t sell it.”

Edusco looked startled. “You mean you agree to my price?”

“Yes,” Obinze said.

After Edusco left, Obinze called Ifemelu over and over but she did not answer.

Obinze’s suddenly agreeing to this man’s price is symbolic of his agreeing to Ifemelu’s price, which is basically to stop using his “responsibilities” as a copout to avoid their relationship.

And in the last chapter we return to the peacocks that Ifemelu and Obinze had previously been watching from her window:

One day, Ifemelu saw the male peacock dance, its feathers fanned out in a giant halo. The female stood by pecking at something on the ground and then, after a while, it walked away, indifferent to the male’s great flare of feathers. The male seemed suddenly to totter, perhaps from the weight of its feathers or from the weight of rejection.

This description of a male tottering under the weight of rejection is describing Obinze under the weight of her rejection.

If Ifemelu’s separation from Obinze early in the novel represents her separation from her home, then prostitution becomes an interesting potential metaphor for emigration, as it is Ifemelu’s literally prostituting herself with the tennis coach that actually causes her official, as opposed to just physical, separation from Obinze. Adichie likens the feeling of debasing oneself for money to that of leaving one’s homeland for supposedly better opportunities, which might end up causing more problems than it solves. Perhaps there’s also an objective correlative in the final blog post of Ifemelu’s that we see:

But now the shacks are gone. They are erased, and nothing is left, not a stray biscuit wrapper, not a bottle that once held water, nothing to suggest that they were once there.

-SCR

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