97 Followers
70 Following
Merle

Merle

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie UPDATE: Now with irritating author interview! See end of review.

Those of you who know me know I don’t really have favorite authors: I have favorite books, occasionally favorite series. So you won’t be surprised that after I thought [b:Half of a Yellow Sun|18749|Half of a Yellow Sun|Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327934717s/18749.jpg|1651408] was amazing and [b:Purple Hibiscus|126381|Purple Hibiscus|Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1329431038s/126381.jpg|1057017] and [b:The Thing Around Your Neck|5587960|The Thing Around Your Neck|Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320413162s/5587960.jpg|5759301] fairly good, I’m giving 2 stars (edit: 1 star) to Adichie’s latest. Typical. But really, yikes! This isn't even a novel: it's a 477-page opinion essay with some characters thrown in.

Read the blurb and you'll be told Americanah is about a pair of star-crossed lovers from Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze, following their adventures as immigrants in the U.S. and U.K. respectively. Technically that's in the book, but Americanah is really a series of vignettes in which an endless parade of minor characters talk about race, nationality, and various other issues, with Ifemelu in the background. (Obinze is here more as her love interest than a protagonist in his own right, and we only get a few chapters from his perspective.)

So here's the thing. If you're looking for a book of observations about race in America, you might like this. Adichie certainly has a lot of them. But for me this bloated book was a complete slog--I read 5 others from start to finish while plodding through it. The most interesting parts of the characters' lives, the moments when something is actually at stake, are breezed through in narrative summary, while the book focuses in on mundane conversations illustrating Adichie's points about race. There's no real plot, no tension or momentum, and I found it impossible to summon any interest in the characters, as I was kept at a distance from them throughout.

There are two types of scenes here, both of which feel as if they could have been lifted directly from the author's life or the lives of people she knows, and then strung together with little sense of continuity. In the first, Ifemelu encounters someone who says something ignorant, biased or otherwise unfortunate on the subject of race or nationality. In the second, Ifemelu attends a social event where a group of people talk about race or nationality. A revolving door of bit-part characters exists to opine on these subjects: there must be 200+ named characters in this book, almost all of whom appear in only one or two scenes and are developed only through brief sketches. Even in the last 10 pages of the book, Adichie's introducing us to a whole new group of people so that they can talk about the economic problems in Nigeria. Which is representative of the extent to which the entire book is more a platform for the author to talk about issues than a story.

And perhaps because Ifemelu's primary role is as an observer who blogs about other people's foibles (actual blog entries are scattered liberally throughout), she mostly comes across as self-righteous and judgmental. When she does act, it's usually to be unpleasant: she passive-aggressively starts fights with her boyfriends, writes personal blog posts about friends without their permission, and when a co-worker criticizes her behavior, her response is to call the co-worker ugly. Ifemelu seems to tolerate other people in her life only insofar as they don't inconvenience her (and she's easily annoyed, by everything from her parents daring to visit her to a boyfriend moving on with his life after she cuts him off), and she radiates disdain for everyone she meets, even those closest to her. Normally I'm a fan of flawed female protagonists, but Ifemelu is neither interesting nor admirable, drifting through a story that seems to take readers' identification with her for granted, with little narrative awareness of her flaws.

As for the most prominent part of the book then: the discussions about race. My response was mixed. There are certainly some good observations here, and Adichie is absolutely right that there ought to be more novels about how people experience race today, instead of the endless parade of books about slavery or Jim Crow that make us feel good about how far we've come rather than challenging us to do better. Sometimes Adichie exaggerates, although not fatally so--for instance, in a shopping scene where the characters are unable to identify which salesperson helped them because the only way to distinguish between the two is that one is black and one white, and they're unwilling to mention race. This could certainly happen and says something about American society, but Adichie seems quick to generalize, as if all Americans would react in the same way (I doubt most would be as stymied by the situation as the characters presented here). But while Ifemelu is always confident in her opinions, and gets annoyed with people who disagree with her, Adichie merely presents her conclusions rather than leading readers to make them independently. People who don't already agree with her are unlikely to be convinced.

In the end, I was disappointed because I know Adichie can write great novels, where the focus is on the characters and their story and these elements are developed brilliantly. But that isn't this book. Adichie has a character argue against subtlety in writing novels about race, but surely it's possible to talk about race honestly and tell an engaging story at the same time, rather than sacrificing the latter for the former. I give an extra half-star because the writing is not bad, because those few scenes where she stops pontificating and develops Ifemelu's experiences hooked me, because there are some good observations. But as a novel, Americanah is unsatisfying, and for me proved to be a tedious, heavy-handed slog, easily double the length the plot required. I'll promise here and now that if Adichie decides to publish an essay collection or memoir on the subject, I'll read it. But this cross between blog and novel results in a story and characters too thin to entertain, choked out by observations and opinions that would be better communicated in nonfiction. I simply can't recommend it, and the high rating so far completely mystifies me.

UPDATE: So I read an interview with Adichie here, in which she says:

Still, it seems it is mostly American readers who most miss the fact that “Americanah” is supposed to be funny. I laughed a lot when writing it (although it is a bit worrying to be so amused by one’s own humor). But I suppose race when bluntly dealt with does not blend well with that wonderful, famed American earnestness.

Oh, where do I even begin? First, there's the "If you don't find my jokes funny, it's definitely not because I'm not funny, it's because you don't get that it's supposed to be funny" angle. Some writers do humor well and some don't. If you don't, best not to claim it's your readers' shortcoming.

Second, there's the "Oh, American readers in general don't think it's funny? It's definitely not because it's inside humor that's really only going to appeal to people with similar experiences. It's obviously an American problem, so let's see if I can come up with a stereotype that'll explain it!" angle. (I mean, WTF, now we're supposed to be earnest? I thought we were supposed to be fun-loving but oblivious, or something. But okay, it's pretty easy to stereotype a country of 315 million people, because whatever trait you come up with, millions of people will have it.) I'm not clear on how the elements some readers have found funny, like Ifemelu's father's pedantic way of speaking, are even related to race, but clearly Adichie would rather blame American racial attitudes (and compliment herself for her bluntness) than just admit she's not the world's best humorist.

Third, it's just so exactly something that Ifemelu would say, and the way she thinks and behaves throughout the book (superior, quick to generalize, always finding fault with others but never ever with herself) that it's really impossible to see Ifemelu as anything other than an author-insert. And you know what's 10 times more annoying than when an author you previously loved writes a book you kind of hate? When you then realize actually you don't think much of the author as a person either.