Run-on Sentence Summary
This story of a Nigerian woman moving to America for opportunity and losing herself in the process is a beautiful meditation on race, culture and identity.
Spoilers. The best part about the book is the cultural insight: as the name promises, the book will give you a new outlook on what it means to me an American. It is fun to see my own culture from an outsider’s perspective, in numerous passages like how “the cultural cues had seeped into her skin, and now she went bowling, and knew what Tobey Maguire was about, and found double-dipping gross.”
The story of Ifemelu is a reflection of the author’s personal life experiences, and she has a lot to say. Later in the story, Ifemelu begins blogging about race and immigration, an obvious literary device so that the author can just rant directly instead of trying to weave it into the story. I didn’t mind because the rants are fantastic! I wish I could just read the blog directly.
As Ifemelu struggles with her own identity, the concept of authenticity comes up over and over. She is keenly insightful, saying things like how ‘there was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself.” About her boyfriend, she judges: “Your boyfriend is so charming. And the thought occurred to Ifemelu that she did not like charm. Not Curt’s kind, with its need to dazzle, to perform. She wished Curt were quieter and more inward.”
At first I found these thoughts entertaining. Ifemelu is insecure, and is smugly judgemental of pretty much every person she meets in the story. I gave the author the benefit of the doubt, and eagerly awaited her personal growth and transformation. She leaves a path of destruction in her wake, hurting everyone gets close to her. She abruptly goes no contact and cuts off the love of her life, and cheats on her devoted but culturally different boyfriend. Annoyingly, she repeatedly gets vindicated for her awful behavior and as the book drew towards the end, I was actually feeling nervous that she wasn’t going to learn a thing!
Obinze, her cool, calm love from back home, is painted as representing the moral high ground. One central idea of his story is how sometimes fate is out of your hands and life just happens. Through his arbitrary failure immigrating to England and arbitrary success in Nigeria after selling out, the central lesson seems to be that your success in life does not reflect your morality.
By the end, I was fuming when Obinze left his devoted wife to be with Ifemelu, because I identified more with the wife than either of the main characters. Charitably, you could interpret the book to be a meditation about how difficult and random life can be. Sadly though, it feels much more likely that the author is simply oblivious to this perspective and simply assumes that you will identify with her characters by default.
I find this book hard to rate. On one hand, the unsatisfying ending left me frustrated, but on the other hand it drew me in enough to make me mad! Regardless it is well written and was certainly worth reading.
“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing."