It Was The Best Of Books, It Was The Worst Of Books: Americanah

Why I Read Americanah

Suspense, thrillers, mystery, and occult are the genres that make up most of my to-read stack, so Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not the type of novel that typically catches my eye. But I saw it listed in an article covering the ten most-talked-about books for 2014 and suggested it for one of my book groups. Also, I loved the audiobook sample on Audible. It was from the point of view of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S., struggles to achieve professional success, and writes a blog on race for non-American blacks. I found the partial blog post included in the sample funny and insightful. I was also intrigued that Ifemelu planned to return to Nigeria and was contacting Obinze, a Nigerian man whom she'd once loved, but who was now married to someone else.
The book, which I listened to rather than read, shifts between Ifemelu and Obinze, who at one point emigrates to England but does so without documentation. (Ifemelu comes to the U.S. on a visa.) There are also shifts in time. While Americanah starts when Ifemelu decides to move back to Nigeria, much of the book is the story of her life leading up to that point. 

The Best Of Books

Though I usually prefer a more traditional plot structure, I loved this book. I had no trouble following the point of view and time shifts, which is partly a testament to the narrator. She varied her accent and voice slightly for each character so that I could tell who was whom, but never to the point of caricature. I also found it fairly easy to follow the shifts in time, as the author used certain anchor scenes and places to signal the timeframe. The characters struck a chord in me and were well developed. I loved Ifemelu's observations on race and U.S. culture from her outsider perspective and enjoyed her wit and humor. At the same time, her story is deeply emotional, as is Obinze's. The book has a great deal to say about race, immigration, and differences from person to person and country to country, but I never felt it spoke at the expense of the characters or the plot.

The Worst Of Books?

So why does my title include “the worst of books”? Because after I'd finished I checked the reviews on Goodreads. To my surprise, the first review that popped up was from a reader who hated everything about the book that I'd loved. He'd found the characters underdeveloped, the plot hard to follow or non-existent, the structure lacking. Another reviewer found the book preachy and not at all funny, and the scenes that made me cry left her cold.

You Decide

None of the negative reviews changed my view of Americanah as one of the best books I've ever read. But the unfavorable reactions were educational. As both a reader and writer, I know book lovers often differ widely in how they see a particular novel. This is particularly so when it comes to a fan of literary fiction reading commercial work and vice versa. This difference often occurs because people come to novels for different things. The lovers of literary fiction tend to focus more on the writing as an end in itself, while those who love commercial fiction often look more for story, including plot and characterization. But I hadn't realized how much of a difference of opinion there could be on a book that seemed to me to do an amazing job on both counts.
If you decide to read the Americanah, please let me know how you see it.