Halfway through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's intricate third novel, "Americanah," one of the protagonists makes a case for intricate novels. Ifemelu, a bright, outspoken Nigerian woman living in the United States, is reading Jean Toomer's "Cane" at a Trenton braiding salon. Another customer — a white woman getting cornrows — asks her, "What's it about?"
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"Why [do] people ask 'What is it about?'" Ifemelu thinks, perturbed by both the question and Cornrow Lady's aggressive friendliness. "As if a novel [has] to be about only one thing."
Sprawling, ambitious and gorgeously written, "Americanah" covers race, identity, relationships, community, politics, privilege, language, hair, ethnocentrism, migration, intimacy, estrangement, blogging, books and Barack Obama. It covers three continents, spans decades, leaps gracefully, from chapter to chapter, to different cities and other lives.
A less dexterous writer attempting to braid together all these elements might manage only a dense tangle of ideas, themes and allusions. But Adichie — a 2008 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner and the award-winning author of "Purple Hibiscus" and "Half of a Yellow Sun" — weaves them assuredly into a thoughtfully structured epic. The result is a timeless love story steeped in our times.
As a teenager in Lagos, Ifemelu finds herself drawn to Obinze, a calm, cool transfer student from Nsukka. They lock eyes at a party and she realizes "she want[s] to breathe the same air as [him]." Suddenly, she's "acutely aware of the present, the now." They become inseparable, and in his presence, she feels more self-assured, more comfortable in her own skin. Following graduation, the young, smitten pair head to university in Nsukka, but politics interfere: The lecturers go on strike for weeks, and the campus shuts down. Ifemelu is forced to wait out the strike back in Lagos. Meanwhile, her aunt, who lives in Brooklyn, urges her to move to the United States to continue her studies. Ifemelu imagines an enchanted American life "in a house from 'The Cosby Show,' in a school with students holding notebooks miraculously free of wear and crease."
She moves, leaving Obinze to finish school in Nigeria, and finds the U.S. dishearteningly un-"Cosby"-like. She has difficulty understanding American culture and humor — and even more difficulty finding work. Following a profoundly traumatic incident, she cuts off all communication with Obinze and sinks into a deep depression.
Adichie captures specific emotions with rich, exacting detail. Add to that the fact that she, too, is from Nigeria and has lived in the U.S., and we get vivid descriptions about the often lonely, disorienting experience of adjusting to a foreign country:
"The world was wrapped in gauze."
"There was a stripped-down quality to her life, a kindling starkness."
"Her days were stilled by silence and snow."
When Ifemelu decides to drop her American accent and, eventually, to start an anonymous blog, "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black," she finds a sense of belonging in writing candidly about not belonging. It becomes her forum for expressing what it's like to be an African who recently immigrated to America, rather than an African-American. The blog gains popularity. Even so, "amorphous longings, shapeless desires" resurface, calcifying into an intense homesickness. Thirteen years after moving to the U.S., she decides to shut down her blog and head home to Nigeria.
This is where "Americanah" begins, with a homeward-bound Ifemelu, though as mentioned, the novel jumps around in time. We get Obinze's story, too: how, denied a visa, he's forced to stay in London and work illegally, including a demoralizing job cleaning toilets. Flash-forward to the present, and he's married with a young daughter, living back in Nigeria, a property developer flush with cash.
Adichie indulges a lot of detail, and "Americanah" certainly lags in places. A more gracious word might be "meanders," echoing the way the lives of old friends and childhood sweethearts meander away from one another — sometimes to intersect again, years later. Fortunately, what unites the many disparate story strands is the very persistent, very human desire of Ifemelu, Obinze and those around them (immigrants and non-) to live the lives they've always envisioned for themselves but haven't achieved. Many of their choices leave them dissatisfied: the places they choose to settle, the people they choose to settle down with.
Adichie asks: What does it require to inhabit our long-imagined lives? And what steps do we take to feel truly seen and understood?
Brimming with lush detail, unflinching emotion and wry humor, "Americanah" is an absorbing love story but also a multilayered meditation on learning to belong to one's own life. An intricate novel for an intricate process.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Knopf, 496 pages, $26.95