It's difficult to compare Adichie's seminal novel with Americanah, her latest effort. This is a contemporary novel, splitting its time between Nigeria and America, with a brief and depressing detour into England for good measure. The writing is always good and frequently transcendent, and that's not an adjective I use lightly. It is a third person narration that mostly follows Ifemelu, a bright young Nigerian woman who jumps at the chance to study in America; after finding much struggle she finds both personal and professional success, but something still eludes her, so she returns to Nigeria. We also get a portrait of Obinze, the boy from university who loves Ifemelu but loses her through no fault of his own, and his subsequent sojourn to London as an illegal immigrant.
The third person narrative feels so intimate on occasion, though, that I had to double check and assure myself that it was not first person--that, as much as anything, is the true measure of how fine a writer Adichie truly is. She does everything right, as far as I'm concerned, and writers who are (lazily, in my opinion) compelled to write in first person, or use multiple narrators to tell their story, or worse, do either of those things while writing in present tense, could learn much from studying her prose and structure.
The first half of this novel is truly substantive, whether it's dealing with power and corruption in Nigeria, or the vagaries of racism in modern America. Adichie made me think of race in new ways while I was reading this, and of course her discourses on American Blacks vs Non-American Blacks (told via Ifemelu's blogposts) were fascinating and illuminating in equal measure. Whether it's Ifemelu's complicated relationships with her auntie, cousin, and boyfriends in the US, or with her family or Obinze back home in Nigeria, or whether she's casually expositing about race in America compared to a lack of race awareness in Nigeria, I found the first half of this book satisfyingly meaty--something I could really sink my teeth into. Whether I was reading the book over breakfast, on the airplane, or in a cafe in the French Quarter, I was immersed and loving it.
The second half of the book, however, is a bit of a disappointment, I'm sorry to confess, but that may have more to do with my expectations than it does with any real failure of the book. Once Ifemelu repatriates to Nigeria, and once her path crosses with Obinze's again, the book becomes much more about relationships than anything else. While I was expecting Great Things, hoping that Ifemelu would use her Life Experience to strike out on her own, raging against the machine for the rights of the downtrodden, she was mostly concerned with reuniting with Obinze, who in her absence, had married and had children.
The book ends with (Spoiler alert: please highlight the following text to read it) Obinze leaving his wife to be with Ifemelu, which gives the novel a tawdrier ending than I would have liked. I had no objections to their being together--in fact, I tend to root for happy relationships in fiction--but what I really wanted was for the novel to continue beyond that point, to tell me what extraordinary things they had done with their lives. I wanted to know that they used the strength of their combined love as a fulcrum to move the world and be a force for good, as they had been on their own in their separate lives.
Still, I want to make it clear that I was drawn into this novel emotionally in a way that I haven't been with the past few pieces of literary fiction I've reviewed. Adichie's writing is terrific, and a book like hers, even one whose ending disappoints, is still about a thousand times better than most of the drivel that gets published.
NB: This book has already been published in the UK and will be published by Knopf in the US on May 17, 2013. I read an advance reading copy provided to me at my request from my sales rep.