Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fourth book, Americanah, is so smart about so many subjects that to call it a novel about being black in the 21st century doesn't even begin to convey its luxurious heft and scope. Americanah is indeed a novel about being black in the 21st century — in America, Great Britain and Africa, while answering a want ad, choosing a lover, hailing a cab, eating collard greens, watching Barack Obama on television — but you could also call it a novel of immigration and dislocation, just about every page tinged with faint loneliness.
Alternatively, it could be read as an exuberant comedy of manners about the foibles of Senegalese salon workers, pretentious African-American bohemians, Old Money Boston liberals, and artsy white lesbians who wear ugly thrift store dresses. Adichie, whose 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun won Britain's Orange Prize for Fiction, observes and ably skewers them all, while tossing off casual observations about contemporary life — the American overuse of the word "excited," the contemporary obsession with carrying around water bottles — like so much loose change. This rich and gloriously detailed tapestry is hung on the sturdy scaffolding of a sweet love story. And yes, Americanah is also a love story.
Ifemelu and Obinze meet and fall in love as students in their native Nigeria. He is calm and charismatic; she is argumentative and outspoken. Adichie's description of Ifemelu's first experience of love is exquisite and simple: "[Obinze] made her like herself." Unlike characters in much recent fiction set in Africa, Ifemelu and Obinze are not "starving, or raped, or from burned villages." Middle class and bookish, they have more in common with the educated Indian migrants of Jhumpa Lahiri's work than the refugees of Dave Eggers' What is the What or the devastated children in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them. Both of Adichie's protagonists want to leave Nigeria not because they are desperate, but because they long for choice and stability. Like many Nigerians of their background, they have been "conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else."
For Obinze, the "somewhere else" turns out to be Great Britain, though his stay is brief and grim. For Ifemelu — and Americanah is chiefly her story — the "somewhere else" is the United States. The novel begins as Ifemelu, now in her 30s, is preparing to return to Nigeria for the first time in 15 years. (It will also be the first time since she left that she sees Obinze, who has since married and had a daughter.) The bulk of the novel unfolds in flashback, a long and vivid account of those 15 years of self-imposed exile, some of which were degrading and miserable, others happy and prosperous, all of which offer a thought-provoking perspective on American life.
As might be expected, Ifemelu's journey starts out badly: People laugh at stories that she doesn't find funny and wear sweatpants to parties, as if to say, Ifemelu will later write, "We are too superior/busy/cool/not-uptight to bother about how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall." She is lonely, confused and poor.
Her luck begins to change after she takes a job as a nanny for a white woman named Kimberley who has the irksome but harmless habit of calling every black woman she sees "beautiful:" " 'I'm meeting my beautiful friend from graduate school,' Kimberley would say, or 'We're working with this beautiful woman on the inner-city project' and always, the women she referred to would turn out to be quite ordinary-looking, but always black." Ifemelu, unfailingly frank, eventually points out that not every black person is beautiful. She dates the beginning of her genuine friendship with Kimberley from that moment of candor.
Later, Ifemelu meets Kimberly's cousin Curt, a wealthy software entrepreneur, and they become romantically involved, the first biracial relationship for both of them. Curt is more of a type than a finely textured character, but at least he's a recognizable type: "He was upbeat, relentlessly so, in a way that only an American of his kind could be, and there was an infantile quality to this that she found admirable and repulsive."
When this relationship inevitably ends, Ifemelu begins a love affair with Blaine, an African-American academic who introduces her to his politically correct friends. Ifemelu's gimlet-eyed observations of their gatherings — the knowing gossip, virtuous eating habits, hipster uniforms — constitute some of the juiciest segments of the novel: "Were they serious, these people who were so enraged about imported vegetables that ripened in trucks?" she wonders. But there are other segments, almost as good, in which Ifemelu sits in a sweltering, run-down salon listening to a fatuous Senegalese beautician talk about her marital aspirations while braiding Ifemelu's hair.
Eventually, Ifemelu starts a blog that she names Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black. The blog, which acquires a large following, features posts with titles like "A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor." Adichie weaves whole entries into the narrative, and these tart editorials add yet another dimension to Americanah, which is as capacious, absorbing and original a novel as you will read this year.