A love story that winds across many years, through Nigeria, England, the US, finally returning to Nigeria. High school sweethearts separated when she (Ifemelu) flees to the US to try studying at a college where teacher strikes and electricity shortages won’t keep her out of class. They have a plan to reunite, but Ifemelu finds it so difficult, so treacherous, so costly to immigrate that she stoops to providing “relaxation” for a suburban tennis coach, just once but enough for her to fall into a deep depression. She stops contact with everyone, and freezes him out. Her life tumbles on, finally finding a babysitting job that can support her while she goes to school in Philadelphia. She deliberates avoids acquiring an American accent. She is befuddled by the lack of hair braiding options (and exorbitant cost – $160). To cinch the job interview her wealthy white boyfriend (Curt) has lined up for her, she yields to the advice of a counselor and takes out her braids, relaxes her hair into the approved straight look. The chemical burns her scalp but she perseveres for months before giving in and going natural with an Afro. She begins a blog called Raceteeth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, providing straight talk about race/racism in America. The blog enables her to quit her day job, accepting advertisement revenue and speaking fees. After her first fiasco of a talk, she realizes she’s being booked not to speak the truth about racism but to provide encouragement that white America is on the right track. She meets Blaine, an American Black, on the train, exchanging numbers but he does not call her back; fast-forward many years and she runs into him at a conference “Blogging while Brown” and they begin to date, eventually she shutters her Baltimore condo and moves to New Haven where he professes at Yale. Minor disturbances chafe them, culturally different. (And his sister Shan provides an evil villain for Ifemelu to hate). She declares that she is moving back to Nigeria, ending their relationship, keeping to herself that she was unable to feel as much for Blaire as she did for Obinze, her original love.
Meanwhile, Obinze attempted to immigrate to London, his mother sneaking him in on a six month visa and then his desperation to find a job and secure citizenship. On the brink of marrying an Eastern European for citizenship, he is deported. In Nigeria he’s given a break by one of the important men who run the country, beginning his real estate empire and amassing wealth. He marries, has a daughter, settles into a life that he doesn’t quite like. I was struck by the variation yet similarity in their immigration experiences (few friends will help him and she gets the babysitting gig through a friend, they both end up back in Nigeria). The story unfolding in the hair braiding salon as she’s on the brink of return, so much drama packed into that tight hot space in Trenton, NJ, her reckless text to Obinze after years of silence to let him know she is coming back, her persistent attempts to call her cousin Dike who we find out has attempted suicide by Tylenol, spinning her off into a frenzied state of nursing him back to psychic health and delaying her return (and preventing her from contacting the Igbo cab driver her hair braider insists she tell him that she can marry her).
A whirlwind of a book, delightful, delicious.