Sunday, June 30, 2013

Interesting, Not Compelling: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, the new novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a good book.   Like she did in her award winning book Half of a Yellow Sun, in Americanah Ms. Acichie creates a large cast of fully lived-in characters while balancing two sets of interlocked narratives centered on star-crossed lovers.  Her main character, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria and the love of her life, Obinze, for school in America while Obinze heads to a new life in London.  Although the two are clearly meant to be together, they do not reunite until many years (and many pages) have passed, enough time for Ifemelu to become a successful academic/blogger and for Obinze to become a wealthy Nigerian businessman after being deported from England.

We know all of this from the opening chapters so I haven't spoiled anything here.

However, the true focus on Americanah is not the story of Ifemelu and Obinze's love, but the experience of African immigrants in America, and to a lesser extent in England.  After she more-or-less adapts to life in American, Ifemelu begins a blog devoted to the topic of explaining America  to non-American Blacks.  Many of Ifemelu's blog posts are featured in the book working as a commentary on the events and characters portrayed in the novel.

This makes for interesting reading.  I imagine that most of the Americans, and probably the British, who read Americanah will come away looking at their country in a new light.  There's nothing new about the immigrant experience in America, but Ifemelu's particular experience, as an African in a culture with a long historical bias against African-Americans, is not one I had read much about before reading Americanah.

For example, one of the first jobs Ifemelu gets in America is working as a nanny for a wealthy white family.  Her white boss spends a good deal of time with her sister who has this habit of referring to every black person she knows or sees as 'beautiful.'  She does not call any other type of person beautiful, but she'll point to a picture in a magazine of an ordinary looking black woman and say, "Isn't she just beautiful."  (I confess that at lunch today, when a black family sat in the booth next to ours and I noticed how good looking they all were, I wondered if I would have noticed the same thing about a white family.)

It's this sort of seemingly small detail that Adichie is very good at in Americanah and it makes for interesting reading.  But not for compelling reading.

I had some problems with Americanah.

I can accept the plot structure, though I think it will frustrate many readers.  Keeping the two lovers apart for so long, giving Ifemelu a series of unsatisfactory boyfriends, switching from one to the other, are all things that can drive many readers crazy.  But, since I list both Wuthering Heights and Love in the Time of Cholera as two of my all-time favorite books, I'm used to plots that keep love interests away from each other for long stretches of pages.  However, even I began to grow tired of waiting for the reunion in Americanah and almost ended up skimming the books final 70 pages.

Adichie is very good at creating characters.  Americanah is full of fascinating people, many of whom are more interesting that the books two main leads.  I came to love or to love to hate many of the book's supporting  characters.  Aunty Uju, who begins as the mistress of a powerful general and ends as an American doctor with a difficult teenage son, is my personal favorite.  Ifemelu and Obinze are not nearly as much fun to spend time with in comparison.  But that's also okay with me.  Another of my all time favorites is David Copperfield, a book full of wonderful characters every single one of them much more interesting than David  Copperfield himself.

I think what really kept Americanah from becoming compelling is that the book is too bogged down in its theme.  By the end of the novel, I began to feel that the characters and the plot were developing from the theme when the theme should really develop from the characters and the plot.  Adichie has a lot to say about race in America and about the modern African immigrant experience. While I think everything she says is true, and that everything she says needs to be said, I also think that it keeps Americanah from becoming the compelling read Half of a Yellow Sun was.  

Adichie is very good at writing party scenes, dinner parties where large groups of characters discuss the issues of the day.  Since people really do get together in small and large groups and talk about politics, it's something that  should happen more often in novels.  There were several scenes in Half of a Yellow Sun where characters discussed the politics of post-colonial Nigeria that I found fascinating to read.  There is a wonderful party scene in Americanah where Ifemelu joins an old friend from Nigeria who has married a very wealthy woman for a dinner party to find that he has completely traded in his African self for an American one.  It's a funny scene that reveals much about American society today.

Then, later on there is another dinner party scene.  Then another.  After each, just in case the reader has missed the point, we find Ifemelu's blog post about the scene that we've just read to drive the point home.  The blog entries are good; if there is a comparable blog out there in the real world (can one call the blogosphere the real world?) I'd love to read it.  But while putting all this together in a book makes for interesting reading, it also keeps the book from becoming compelling.

At least, it did for me. 


Lisa said...

I'm on the long library list for this, but maybe I should look for her earlier book while I'm waiting.

Jackie Bailey said...

I'm about 100 pages into this book and loving it, but it was really interesting to read your review. I agree that she is fantastic at creating characters. I've loved the build-up, but can see that I might get frustrated if there aren't some interesting plot developments soon. I'll come back to your review once I've finished the book and see how much I agree with you :-)

Anonymous said...

I can see your point with this. I loved Americanah, but I am also ceaselessly fascinated by explorations of race relations in America. And I thought Adichie's observations were clever and true, as you say, and sometimes they were unexpected, which I loved. I guess towards the end I was ready for the book to wrap up its plot, but I was mostly happy to go along with the race relations talk.

(I just remembered I haven't caught up on Codeswitch so I'm heading over to for that. :p)

Teresa said...

I haven't read this yet--and I plan to eventually--but I wonder if the difference between your reaction to this and to Half of a Yellow Sun has to do with familiarity with the themes. I know that one of the things I enjoyed about the earlier novel was learning so much about a time and place that was new to me. I wonder if I would have liked it as much if it had been about a point in America's recent history.

James Chester said...

Lisa, I think most of her fans will agree that Half a Yellow Sun is the better book. I say, go for that one.

Jackie, I always value your opinion. I'll be watching for your review.

Jenny, Frankly, I was ready to wrap up the plot with 150 plus pages still to go. In the end, I felt the characters and the plot existed to provide opportunities to discuss the theme. And, I lost interest in the theme well before the end of the book.

Teresa, I fear you may be right. I say fear because I think that's a problem. If we're reading something because the subject is new to us, what kind of marker of quality is that.

I'm hoping for a much better novel next time.