Wow, what a read. I couldn’t wait to write the review for this book! I only put it down a half an hour ago but I must get all my opinions out as they are still fresh in my mind.
The few reviews that I have come across all had very positive things to say about the novel, some did comment that it was a bit slow to begin with but then the narrative sped up. I can understand how someone can view it as slow, but that was probably the part I liked best. When a reader is slowly introduced to the main character, dips into the past before fluttering back to the present and then back again it allows for the reader to organically learn about the character. Not adhering to a chronological order does give the author a lot more control over the perception that the reader will get of the character (purposely withholding some of the character’s poorer choices, etc) but I don’t think that’s the aim here.
The novel is opens with a young Nigerian girl, named Ifemelu, living in Princeton off to get a weave done. Adichie quickly establishes that our main character has been Americanized compared with the other African women working in the salon. She is much more aware of the questions that are culturally “acceptable” in contrast to her hairstylist who is in a desperate attempt to get her green card by marrying an American man and going to far as to make Ifemelu grow uncomfortable when she asks her to talk to her current boyfriend to convince him to marry her just because he’s Nigerian like Ifemelu. I think this scene perfectly establishes of the main themes of the novel: race and culture assimilation.
We follow Ifemelu as she leaves Nigeria behind, the only world she knew, to start a better life and reach for the American Dream. She quickly learns that life isn’t like the one painted on the photos she used to admire. She re-learns how to behave with her fellow Americans, by not using certain words or phrases, dressing a certain way, aiming to be as skinny as possible and behaving in a socially acceptable way. This way the author discusses themes such as consumerism, immigration, culture shock, and female standards. When she first arrives in America her dream quickly shatters:
“Aunty Uju’s impatience, that new prickliness in her, made Ifemeu feel that there were things she should already know but, through some personal failure of hers, did not know.” (107)
“She ached for the lives [the commercials] showed, lives full of bliss, where all problems had sparkling solutions in shampoos and cars, and packaged foods, and in her mind they became the real America.” (103)
The issue of race and culture loss is nothing new. The way that Adichie chooses to portray it and discuss it is what makes this book so powerful. So REAL. She manages to capture the essence of every thought and crucial moment. She’s selectively descriptive. She doesn’t overwhelm the reader with just a huge array of descriptions for the sake of being detailed. Rather she frequently has very powerful sentences to emphasize a certain point. She gets to the point and doesn’t dance around sensitive subjects.
It’s impossible to not discuss feminism, as it is definitely one of the main themes. The main character is a very powerful female protagonist. She hasn’t always been like that. It would seem that the drastic and frequently horrific experiences in America make her into a stronger, and more self-respecting female. There are many different types of love that we experience with her, and I think that contributes to making her strive to make her own way in the world and not use marriage as a way to attain financial security (a common choice for many of her friends). The only thing I didn’t really enjoy was near the end I felt the character got a little too sensitive and just would explode irrationally when things didn’t go the way she wanted it to with Obinze. Also, it was brought to my attention by I Know What You Should Read that Adichie has done a Ted talk on feminism which is a great watch!
Verdict: Pick it up and give it a read. You won’t want to put it down, as the author is brilliant and the story is fascinating!