I just didn’t really care for this book. I know. I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. Everyone else loves it! I tried. There were whole sections I liked a lot! I love her other books!
But at the end, I put it down and felt like I’d just finished my assigned reading for an undergraduate course on racism in America. Not in a “wow, what a thought-provoking novel!” kind of way. In a “so I guess I have to write a term paper now” kind of way.
Our protagonist is Ifemelu, a Nigerian-turned-American. She has decided to shut down her lucrative blog, dump her African-American boyfriend, and return to Nigeria. We skip around in time and learn about her life–growing up in Nigeria, meeting her first love, moving to Philadelphia for undergrad. Each segment is well-crafted and many vignettes are fresh and compelling: Adichie does a superb job articulating the many surprises of being foreign–and black–in America, the soul-sucking hopelessness of being jobless and poor, the charms and difficulties of white American boyfriends. Ifemelu dips into depression, moves up through academia, finds blog fame by writing straightforwardly and abruptly about race, she returns to Nigeria and finds herself, once more, a foreigner. We learn about her boyfriends and Nigerian classmates, how they meander through life, some of them through the UK and America, how they change, how America and Britain and Nigeria change them. Adichie does a great job of capturing the feeling of a place–the bustle of Lagos, the charm of Philadelphia–while also telling us exactly how the character feels because of that place. That’s some skill, there.
So there’s plenty of room for insight, nuance, and charm. Why did it fall flat for me?
First, the plot doesn’t really shape up to be, well, a plot. As soon as Ifemelu starts making money and hanging out with rich(er) liberal Americans, it switches from character-driven and empathetic to, basically, a parade of minor characters talking (and talking) about race, immigration, class, Barack Obama, other Important American Liberal/Progressive Topics. Ifemelu attends these gatherings because of her boyfriend or her blog, hovering in the background and speaking up occasionally…but we the audience know that she has the right opinion. She, and no one else, not even her upstanding boyfriend, sees through the topic du jour. She is our narrator, and we see liberal and/or American silliness (outrage over out-of-season fruit, refusal to eat chocolate bars that aren’t fair trade, whatever) for what it is–through her eyes. It starts to feel self-righteous.
One or two of these salon scenes might be fine, or one or two of these minor characters, if we got to know them over the course of the book. But there are multiple scenes that span hundreds of pages, with a rotating cast of characters, and after a while it starts to feel like a repetition of the conversations that happen late at night freshman year: interesting and even crucial to the 18 year olds who are having them; forgettable or trite to anyone who’s already graduated.
Ifemelu, from page 1, felt like an obvious author-insert. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are Adichie, but Ifemelu also came across, by the end of the book especially, as not particularly self-aware–in fact, often she seemed downright selfish. There are a few moments where other characters call her on it (Doris in the final chapters calls her judgmental, to her face; but then Ifemelu in turn calls Doris ugly, so.) but by that point in the 641 page novel, it feels like an aside.
Sometimes her flaws were real and well-developed: when she’s struggling to pay the rent, when she shuts her boyfriend out because of shame, when she feels out of place in her new boyfriend’s friend group–those moments were wonderful. But they are overwhelmed throughout the course of the novel by a feeling that the author wants you to know that Ifemelu knows better than you. Ifemelu is the only one, apparently, who will talk plainly about racism. Ifemelu is the only one who sees through the charade of white American liberal’s privileged conversations in ivory towers. Ifemelu may hurt the ones who love her, but it’s for a good and justifiable reason that only Ifemelu knows (more than once, she doesn’t tell a boyfriend why he’s being dumped! I mean, good grief.) Even in the hair salon with other African women, Ifemelu is the best African woman–she has thought more about African hair, is more insightful than the poor Senegalese hairdresser, raises her eyebrows at the thin-haired white woman getting cornrows. Even Ifemelu’s friends are painted negatively: Kimberly, we are told, becomes a true friend to Ifemelu–but all we readers ever see is her obsequiousness, her unquestioning devotion to her mediocre husband, and her white, rich, liberal guilt. Ifemelu’s charming white rich American boyfriend Curt is wonderful, doting, gorgeous, but a little bit clueless about race since he is a rich white dude. He is, of course, too shallow for her, too eager, too likeable, too charming–too white, too American. And those are the “good” characters, the one she likes! The ones she doesn’t like receive much harsher treatment.
And since Ifemelu feels like an author-insert, it’s hard as a reader to not feel condescended to. In other words, when I put myself in the types of situations and conversations Ifemelu/Adichie is critiquing, the main feeling I get is that Ifemelu would judging me for both my thoughts and my very American way of expressing them.
This is not how I want to feel as a reader.
This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that Ifemelu is a blogger and in that role, she serves primarily as an observer. And I get it–she’s Nigerian who has to learn how to be black in America, so she can comment on racism without previous cultural baggage. I get it. But. She’s commenting on other people, people who don’t have a say in this conversation, sometimes even writing about her own friends without their permission. The blog posts themselves dot the ends of many chapters and also come across as self-righteous and judgmental. The titles are pompous, the style pretentious, and the content, which we were told over and over is bold, honest, groundbreaking, seemed…not. Not groundbreaking, and not anything I haven’t read elsewhere, written better.
And that gets to the heart of the problem for me: Ifemelu is never wrong. She lies, cheats, and makes incredibly selfish decisions, but never seems to learn anything from her mistakes because there’s always a reason for it, a reason she thinks is good enough, and therefore we are supposed to think is good enough–even if, really, she’s being petty or short-sighted. She is super judgy about her friends who sleep with influential, wealthy, married Nigerians for the perks…but then she (spoiler!) sleeps with a wealthy, married Nigerian. But for her it’s different because TRUE LOVE! The main romance, by the way, would have been better as a short story or novella: there’s just not enough heft to see it through all those hundreds of pages. Since Ifemelu didn’t seem to grow all that much, I’m not sure why I should care if she does/does not reunite with her first love.
In the middle of the book, some character says, “It must be so hard to write a book about race in America.” (Get it?) In another conversation, someone says that what America needs is a book about race that isn’t so subtle. (Get it?!) It’s quite obvious that Adichie thinks this is that book. It is a fine book. She says a lot of things that are worth saying. I understand why people like this book. But while many of her observations are spot-on, and I appreciate her platform and vision, Americanah felt, by the end, not about race, and not even about America, but about Ifemulu’s–and by extension, unfortunately, Adichie’s–disdain for everyone else.
I wish this had been an essay or a memoir–I think it would have been more powerful, less meandering, less condescending, less chiding. But I think it tried to be everything all at once–essay, novel, commentary on modern race relations, critique of liberal America, funny cultural observations, epic love story, memoir–and lost its heart in the process. I give it three stars because the writing itself is very good, and the parts that work work well, and I like the ambition behind it. But I had such high hopes, and Half of a Yellow Sun was so good, and so many people love Americanah…I want to give it two stars for sheer disappointment.