Customer Review

255 of 305 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More blog than novel, June 1, 2013
This review is from: Americanah (Ala Notable Books for Adults) (Hardcover)
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I was so disappointed by this. Half of a Yellow Sun is a brilliant novel, and I mean brilliant: if you haven't read it yet, stop reading reviews of this one and get yourself a copy! Purple Hibiscus is quite good as well. So I was excited to see that Adichie had written another novel.... or so I thought. This turned out to be more like a 477-page opinion essay with some characters thrown in.

Read the blurb and you'll be told Americanah is about a pair of star-crossed lovers from Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze, following their adventures as immigrants in the U.S. and U.K. respectively. Technically that's in the book, but Americanah is really a series of vignettes in which an endless parade of minor characters talk about race, nationality, and various other issues, with Ifemelu in the background. (Obinze is here more as her love interest than a protagonist in his own right, and we only get a few chapters from his perspective.)

If you're looking for a book about race in America and aren't concerned about story, by all means, give this a try; Adichie has plenty to say on the subject. But for me this bloated book was a complete slog--I read 5 others from start to finish while plodding through it. The most interesting parts of the characters' lives, the moments when something is actually at stake, are breezed through in narrative summary, while the book focuses in on mundane conversations illustrating Adichie's points about race. There's no real plot, no tension or momentum, and I found it impossible to summon any interest in the characters, as I was kept at a distance from them throughout.

There are two types of scenes here, both of which feel as if they could have been lifted directly from the author's life or the lives of people she knows, and then strung together with little sense of continuity. In the first, Ifemelu encounters someone who says something ignorant, biased or otherwise unfortunate on the subject of race or nationality. In the second, Ifemelu attends a social event at which people talk about race or nationality. There's a revolving door of bit-part characters to opine on these subjects: this book must have 200+ named characters, almost all of whom appear in only one or two scenes and are developed only through brief sketches. Even in the last 10 pages of the book, Adichie introduces us to a whole new group of characters so that they can talk about economic problems in Nigeria. Which is representative of the extent to which the entire book is more a platform for the author to talk about issues than a story.

And perhaps because Ifemelu's primary role is not to drive the plot but as an observer who blogs about other people's foibles (actual blog entries are scattered liberally throughout), she mostly comes across as judgmental and self-righteous. When she does act, it's usually to be unpleasant: she passive-aggressively starts fights with her boyfriends, writes personal blog posts about friends without their permission, and when a co-worker criticizes her self-absorbed behavior, her response is to call the co-worker ugly. Ifemelu seems to tolerate other people in her life only insofar as they don't inconvenience her (and she's easily annoyed, by everything from her parents daring to visit her to an ex-boyfriend moving on with his life after she cuts him off), and she radiates disdain for everyone she meets, even those closest to her. Normally I'm a fan of flawed female protagonists, but Ifemelu is neither interesting nor admirable, drifting through a story that seems to take readers' identification with her for granted, with little narrative awareness of her flaws.

As for the most prominent part of the book then: the discussions about race. My response was mixed. There are certainly some good observations here, and Adichie is absolutely right that there ought to be more novels about how people experience race today, instead of the endless parade of books about slavery or Jim Crow that make us feel good about how far we've come rather than challenging us to do better. Sometimes Adichie exaggerates for effect--for instance, in a shopping scene where the characters are unable to identify which salesperson helped them because the only way to distinguish between the two is that one is black and one white, and they're unwilling to mention race. This could certainly happen and says something about American society, but Adichie seems quick to generalize, as if all Americans would react in the same way (I doubt most would be as stymied by the situation as the characters presented here). But while Ifemelu is always certain that she's right, and easily annoyed with those who disagree with her, Adichie merely presents her conclusions rather than leading readers to make them independently. People who don't already agree are unlikely to be convinced.

In the end, I was disappointed because I know Adichie can write great novels, where the focus is on the characters and their story and these elements are developed brilliantly. But that isn't this book. Adichie has a character argue against subtlety in writing novels about race, but surely it's possible to talk about race honestly and tell an engaging story at the same time, rather than sacrificing the latter for the former. I give a second star because the writing is not bad, because those few scenes where she stops pontificating and develops Ifemelu's experiences hooked me, because there are some good observations. But as a novel, Americanah is unsatisfying, and for me proved to be a tedious, heavy-handed slog, easily double the length the plot required. I'll promise here and now that if Adichie decides to publish an essay collection or memoir on the subject, I'll read it. But this cross between blog and novel results in a story and characters too thin to entertain, choked out by observations and opinions that would be better communicated in nonfiction. I simply can't recommend it.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 32 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 11, 2013 6:49:21 AM PDT
lynne says:
I was going to write a review, and them I read this one! This reviewer is spot on, in my opinion. I second her advice: skip this one, and go straight to Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a masterpiece!!

Posted on Jul 11, 2013 1:49:15 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
Thank you, Lynne! I hope you'll write your own review as well--the more people can see a mix of opinions, the better.

Posted on Jul 30, 2013 3:32:24 PM PDT
I'm sitting in the Baltimore library, waiting for a talk from the author, who over here is apparently a local resident. I totally agree with your comments here, and wrote something very similar myself. I wonder, though, if she'll convince me to think again? Roger.

Posted on Jul 30, 2013 3:54:24 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 30, 2013 4:46:27 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
That will be interesting! I'm sure this book has merits that I haven't fully credited, but to be frank I'm probably too annoyed with its rather glaring flaws to change my mind about it. I read an interview with Adichie where she talked about the book here:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/life-across-borders-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-talks-about-americanah/?_r=0

And mostly it annoyed me because she talks about how "Americans miss the fact that it's supposed to be funny," as if clearly there's some sort of problem with our intelligence or perceptiveness if we're not laughing. It's definitely not that her writing in fact isn't funny, or that it's a kind of humor only insiders will appreciate. It sounded.... well, like Ifemelu, the exact same disdain and projecting her own imperfections onto other people that drove me up the wall when I was actually reading the book.

So, I don't know, I really loved Half of a Yellow Sun and had a high opinion of Adichie before I read this, but it's just been going downhill....

(Edit: grammar)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 30, 2013 5:16:52 PM PDT
It was a little difficult, I must admit. She is atrractive and personable and has a lovely speaking voice. But it is a soft one and, with her unfamiliar cadences, the library's poor amplification, and my own slight deafness, it was hard to hear. People were laughing, though, a lot. I determined to ask a supportive, non critical, question, but other questions and her answers were so long that I just gave up. I read your review again; it is really fine. Roger.

Posted on Jul 30, 2013 5:57:08 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
Thanks! I thought your review was excellent as well. I think I commented there a little while back.

Ah, if she's funny in person that would explain why she expects people to respond the same way to her writing. Or maybe this book was just a mismatch for me. Did you find it funny?

(It can be hard to talk to authors when you have problems with their work. You want to be nice, of course, but then you don't want to be dishonest. I find that a difficult tightrope to walk, so it's just as well I don't encounter authors much!)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 30, 2013 6:19:34 PM PDT
This is the first I've been to, so I can't judge. I would not say the book is funny -- occasionally witty, yes, but that's different. She said that the long titles of Ifemelu's blog and many of the entries were intentionally ridiculous; I am not sure I got that at all.

As to my own review, I am interested to see that, although overall reactions to the book have been overwhelmingly positive, I have more helpful votes than the leading five-star review, which suggests that although people may not agree with our view, they do think we have a point. Roger.

Posted on Jul 30, 2013 6:43:56 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
Hmm, some of the entries did seem a little over the top, particularly in the way they rambled, but they seemed to match up pretty closely with the author's opinions.

I noticed that about the votes as well. I thought maybe a lot of the people who would've read and disliked the book read your review first and thought the better of it. Or perhaps stalled partway through, came to Amazon, were relieved to find someone who agreed, and didn't review because they didn't finish it. I doubt I would have, had I not gotten it through Vine.

Posted on Oct 9, 2013 1:47:43 AM PDT
august year says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 22, 2013 9:47:49 AM PDT
Aren't you being a tad- no, a whole lot- defensive? I dont understand why some people are so prickly when it comes to race. I've noted that the majority of those who give Americanah negative reviews seem to be offended by Adichie's audacity to write about the topic. How dare she? how dare she lecture us? Instead of shooting the messenger, may be you should really look into the mirror and try to figure out why you "wither" every time a non-white brings up the issue of race?
@E.Smiley- That must have been your review on goodreads, which would make you one very disgruntled reader. That you take personal offense when Adichie notes Americans didn't find the book funny is incomprehensible. How does her comment in any way refer to the intelligence of Americans??? lordy, get a grip!
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