I feel like we need to really wait 10-20 years to see how it ages, but for this moment in time, it’s such a great book for capturing current patterns of speech, academic, political, and social perspectives. It’s familiar, even when describing places, experiences, and cultures unknown to me. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and it’s lingered with me.
This book sat on my shelf for a long time, largely because some of the reader reviews made it sound superficial. They mention “lengthy” excerpts from the character’s blog, long scenes where nothing is talked about except hair. Those criticisms are unfair. It’s not a challenging read in terms of the language, but the characters and the subject matter are so thought-provoking that there’s a lot to dig into.
Plot-wise, it’s a fairly straightforward story of young love and separation. It’s not the plot that makes the book so engaging, but rather the characters (who are layered and who evolve over the years), the way the present era is captured, and the style. Race and outsider-ness is the dominant theme, but there are also interesting explorations of adulthood/ childhood, class, and gender roles.
A favourite excerpt:
In the den, Athena began to cry. Laura went to her and, soon enough, a string of negotiations followed: “Do you want this one, sweetheart? The yellow or the blue or the red? Which do you want?” Just give her one, Ifemelu thought. To overwhelm a child of four with choices, to lay on her the burden of making a decision, was to deprive her of the bliss of childhood. Adulthood, after all, already loomed, where she would have to make grimmer and grimmer decisions.
I’m so distracted by some reader reviews on this one. People who didn’t like it generally accuse the book of being rambling, of characters coming in and then disappearing. This is exactly one of the things I liked most about it, because life is like that. People pop up, hang around, and disappear. There isn’t a neat and tidy introduction-climax-departure cycle to normal relationships. Sometimes you really do only meet someone at one dinner party one time. Similarly, people are critical of the main character for being self-centred and sometimes contradictory. Most of us are - we see life from our point of view, not from the perspective of some omniscient narrator. This is an honest way of telling a story. Also, we change our minds. It happens.
The other criticism comes from people who say the author preaches too much, comes across as judgemental. I don’t think that’s fair - an author should be able to put words into a character’s mouth without having to agree with those words. Just because it’s in the book doesn’t mean the author has to agree with it.
“And we saw this quite unbelievable parade of little children with heavily made-up faces and then there was a lot of flag-waving and a lot of ‘God Bless America.’ I was terrified that it was the sort of place where you did not know what might happen to you if you suddenly said, ‘I don’t like America.’”
Does the author think that? Who knows? Who cares? A character said it in conversation at a dinner party, as people are wont to do.