My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Ifemelu is a young girl growing up in an educated family in Nigeria; Obinze is her friend, then boyfriend, then the love of her life. Both good students, Ifemelu manages to obtain admission and a scholarship to a college in Philadelphia, and when she arrives in the United States the author's idea really gets going. While Ifemelu was an African living in Africa and surrounded by Africans race was invisible to her; once she moved to America the issues of race and identity, only hinted at in her homeland, form the core of her experience. She struggles to make a living, struggles to fit in with American and African students, and she must venture out of her student surroundings, observing the various ways white and black Americans react to her in the process.
I've heard from many people that this is a great, overwhelming book, but I thought it had its weaknesses. I found the long segments of the book in which the author explores the ideas of race and identity through the experience of Ifemelu and other central or peripheral characters was very perceptive. Do you define your identity, or does it come from those around you? Is identity a constant or can it be successfully molded at will? And when you move from Nigeria to the United States and back to Nigeria, or even from Philadelphia to Boston to Princeton to New York, are you the same person?
The other major plot is a conventional romance: two young people find each other but life places obstacles in their path. Will they overcome those obstacles to reunite, and will their enduring love turn out to rise above the experiences and situations that have kept them apart? It was this second plot that some may consider "the" story, while I considered it a distraction.
During her time in America the main character becomes a successful blogger, writing on the experience of a non-American black living in America, and the reader sees her experiences reflected in her blog posts in which she thinks about the meaning of those experiences. I don't think it was a coincidence, but I noticed themes in her blog posts similar to those developed by the author in her TED talk, "The Danger Of a Single Story". It's worth watching whether you read the book or not.
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