“The first summer was Ifemelu’s summer of waiting; the real America, she felt, was just around the next corner she would turn. Even the days, sliding one into the other, languorous and limpid, the sun lingering until very late, seemed to be waiting.” (pg. 136)
Here writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie provides a fine description for her Nigerian character’s initial American experience and eternal hope. She leaves a university strike to make something of her life in the States. America has the richly desired ability to make her people swoon with amelioration. No matter what your station or circumstances, better is always out there, she whispers softly. The ugly twin to this is a cockiness that deserves criticism. We take our destinies by the chipped helm, blinded to storms or pirates or inexperience. It makes us lovable and detestable. What I found so fascinating about this novel is that Adichie offers an equally multi-hued story for her protagonist, Ifemelu. She is refreshingly, compellingly honest and then when confronted with hardship or a desire to please she’s not. She likes herself some days, and then she feels bitter resentment in her skin on others. She can’t understand the antics of white employers who show her pictures of random Africans for familiarity, nor the fellow Africans who chastise each other’s taste in natural hair or a darker complexion. I turn to these portraits for a reminder of how deeply humanity gets love wrong, and how needy we are for the grace of someone other than ourselves. For Ifemelu, this grace comes in several relationships: her cousin Dike, her American boyfriend Curt, and her first love Obinze.
While growing up in Nigeria, Ifemelu becomes incredibly close to her Aunty Uju. She is glamorous and older and wealthy, and seen as blessed by those around her. She has always fostered Ifemelu’s honesty and spends time caring for and coaching her. Her wealth comes from the married man that she loves and has a child with. As Ifemelu watches Uju’s world become uprooted after her lover’s death, she hardens herself to the idea of ever doing what she did. She also comes to love their son, Dike, who moves to America as a toddler. As his part-time nanny and family member, Ifemelu helps Dike understand more about his heritage. As she loses her closeness with Uju, she gains an attachment to her son. They talk about race, friendships, fitting in, and remaining authentic. He provides her with new perspective, a chance to watch him stretch those American wings, and a special reminder of where he came from. Ifemelu needs this relationship to help get her through the first, broke, lonely years in her new country. Dike needs someone to treat him lovingly, and listen to his heart. They are a sweet pair to observe.
As Ifemelu adjusts to the dreams and workings of America, she meets her first serious paramour since leaving Nigeria. Her employer has a very charming, handsome cousin who showers her with attention and romance. Their relationship is also well-rounded, sometimes intense and sometimes funny. Ifemelu explains to Curt why there must be an Essence magazine. His mother is pleasant but considers this another of Curt’s “adventures.” She chooses not to introduce him to an old acquaintance from her hometown. They navigate infidelity and compassion. He teaches her how to feel limitless and she teaches him how to contain himself.
“With Curt, she became in her mind, a woman free of knots and cares, a woman
running in the rain with the taste of sun-warmed strawberries in mouth…He
believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films, a
trouble-free belief, because he had not considered them deeply before choosing
to believe; he just simply believed.” (243)
At this point, readers can conjecture that Curt will not be her truest love. So…
Obinze is the first love interest who lets Ifemelu be as free as she can possibly be, as true to herself, and as strong of a woman that she can be. He adores it. He cherishes it. He desires it. He waits for it. He dated her beginning in high school, and they found it heartbreaking to leave each other. They dodged communications, asked about each other through friends, and then embarked on an affair while Obinze was married. Despite this character flaw in the both of them, their love appeared honest. Obinze’s wife was a shadow of herself, so intent on being everything to everyone. Ifemelu would never be happy with anyone else. While I wish that marriage was treated with more respect and adoration in novels and in life, I recognize that this happens. And Adichie does a beautiful job of illustrating two people who get each other. One could even see Obinze as a metaphor for her native country and where she feels most comfortable. The grace in this relationship comes from its history, its hardships, and its aspirations. A little bit like America, and in the eyes of both personages, worth the wait.