Starred review from March 25, 2013
Adichie burst onto the literary scene in 2006 with Half of a Yellow Sun, her searing depiction of the civil war in Nigeria. Her equally compelling and important new novel follows the lives of that country’s postwar generation as they suffer endemic corruption and poverty under a military dictatorship. An unflinching but compassionate observer, Adichie writes a vibrant tale about love, betrayal, and destiny; about racism; and about a society in which honesty is extinct and cynicism is the national philosophy. She broadens her canvas to include both America and England, where she illuminates the precarious tightrope existence of culturally and racially displaced immigrants. The friendship of Ifemelu and Obinze begins in secondary school in Lagos and blossoms into love. When Ifemelu earns a scholarship to an American college, Obinze intends to join her after his university graduation, but he’s denied a U.S. visa. He manages to get to London where his plight is typical of illegal immigrants there: he uses another man’s ID so he can find menial, off-the-grid work, with the attendant loss of dignity and self-respect. The final blow comes when he’s arrested and deported home. Ifemelu, meanwhile, faces the same humiliations, indignities, and privations—first in New York, then in Philadelphia. There, attending college, she’s unable to find a job and descends to a degrading sexual act in order to pay her rent. Later she becomes a babysitter for a wealthy white family and begins writing a provocative blog on being black in America that bristles with sharp, incisive observations about racism. Ifemelu writes that the painful, expensive process of “relaxing” kinky African hair to conform to cultural expectations brings black women dangerously close to self-hatred. In time the blog earns Ifemelu fame and a fellowship to Princeton, where she has love affairs with a wealthy white man and, later, an African-American Yale professor. Her decision to return home to Nigeria (where she risks being designated as an affected “Americanah”) is the turning point of the novel’s touching love story and an illuminating portrait of a country still in political turmoil. Announced first printing of 60,000. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency.