I had been meaning to read this book for a while and finally got to it. The beginning sucked me in immediately with the setting. The sense of place, Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey rang so true and was very firmly established, completely engaged me in the beginning. I found the author’s commentary on race as an outsider looking in at the US insightful and more importantly true to the character’s voice. At times, when an author tries to write a book about social or political issues the character’s voice gets lost and it is just the author speaking, but that does not happen here. It truly feels as though it is Ifemelu who is speaking.
Although there are ostensibly two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, it really feels as though Obinze is an afterthought. He exists only in how he reacts and interacts with Ifemelu and how she ultimately impacts his life. Most of the rest of the large cast of characters are only momentarily in the book, Ifemelu interacts with them, usually unpleasantly, and then reacts or moves on and then there are other characters for her to deal with in some manner.
I really wanted to like this book, especially with the promising beginning, however, there were just too many things that I could not completely ignore. It felt too long, about 150 pages or so too long. It could have done with some serious editing. It is a novel about two lovers, not an essay on race relations and unfortunately I would not wish Ifemelu on my worst enemy. She is judgemental, immature, self-righteous, a liar, a cheater, and a snob. She was for me completely unlikable and incapable of love. Although there are novels in which that is not an issue, it is a problem when she needs to carry an almost 500 page “love” story.
The turns of phrase, the insightful discussion of racism, (although I could have done with more showing and much less telling, hence my editing remark), the commentary about Nigeria, the development of sense of place, and the introduction of interesting and sympathetic characters (who unfortunately are whisked away quickly) all are so incredibly well done that I will definitely read more by this author.