When Romeo slays Tybalt after Tybalt kills Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo cries out, “Oh, I am fortune’s fool!” He means he’s trapped — caught in a web of culture that he cannot overcome.
Ifemelu and Obinze are similarly snared. They’re the two young lovers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel “Americanah,” and they spend most of the book separated by borders, passports and visas, the relentless Fates of the 21st century.
They meet in school in Lagos, where they dream of leaving Nigeria and spending the rest of their lives together. Obinze yearns to breathe American air but it is Ifemelu who winds up going to university in Philadelphia, while Obinze lands instead in London. Obinze’s English sojourn ends in his arrest and deportation; Ifemelu’s East Coast life begins in desperation but blossoms into confidence and relative prosperity.
Slowly Ifemelu learns to navigate the United States’ tricky, multi-layered culture. As her academic
career grows (a fellowship at Princeton), she creates a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” into which she pours her observations and analyses of our bizarre racial dynamics. She takes up with a couple of different American men. She severs contact with Obinze, who returns, defeated, to Lagos, but who slowly, unexpectedly becomes rich. And married. And a father.
The arcs of these two old and passionate friends seem unlikely to curve back toward one another, until Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria. And then, from the moment she is engulfed by the heat and colors and sounds of her old hometown, it is inevitable that Ifemelu and Obinze will re-meet and take up the thread of what had been interrupted between them.
“Americanah” is both an old-fashioned page-turner and a new-fangled culture clash, a captivating novel that is never boring and frequently riveting. Adichie, who moved to the U.S. in 1996 and still lives here part-time, is a fine and fearless writer. In “Americanah” she plunges right into the deep end of the pool, reproducing long samples of her main character’s blog posts:
“Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say ‘It’s just like when I ...’ You have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black. Don’t be quick to find alternative explanations for what happened. Don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.’ You see, American Blacks actually don’t WANT it to be race. They would rather not have racist shit happen ...”
Sharp. Smart. Yet there is something, I have to say, a little messy and unfocused about “Americanah.” At 477 pages, perhaps it’s a hundred pages too long. It lacks the masterly sweep and control of Adichie’s extraordinary second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” or the range and economy of her book of short stories, “The Thing Around Your Neck.” It’s not that her many observations and analyses are off; there are simply too many of them, and sometimes they fly off the wheel rather than collecting and gathering force.
There’s another lover’s quote that comes to mind when I think about “Americanah:” In the movie “Casablanca,” when Rick/Bogart tells Ilsa/Bergman, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Adichie aims to prove Bogart wrong. She wants us to believe that the hard-forked roads traveled by “Americanah’s” Ifemelu and Obinze do matter.
I’m not sure I buy that on the available evidence, but I’ll tell you what: At the end of the novel when love finds its predestined satisfaction, I thought of Kosi, Obinze’s beautiful, bourgeois wife and the mother of his child. In the novel, Kosi is condemned to a quick offstage exit. I thought of Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, who spends her life battling the twists of fate that would condemn her to poverty and obscurity, and of her son, Dike, who almost gives up on the whole damn thing. I thought of Ifemelu’s African-American boyfriend, Blaine, of her girlfriend Ranyinudo back in Lagos and the other unforgettable women and men of “Americanah.” Fortune’s fools, tossed by Fates are what today we call politics. And it is Adichie’s achievement that Kosi, Dike, Blaine, those living souls are not just characters on a page. They matter, even if the novel’s central love story can’t quite light the fireworks. In the end, the supporting cast of “Americanah” steals the story, but shed no tears for Ifemelu and Obinze. Hell, they’ll always have Lagos.