Ifemelu goes to college in America and struggles with depression, employment, and making her way in an immigrant's harsh world. She gets a break nannying a wealthy couple's two children and starts a blog critiquing liberal white Americans that use charity to make themselves feel better, racism, and more. Ifemelu becomes friends with Kimberly, the wealthy white mother, who has false assumptions about immigrants and Africans; however, Ifemelu recognizes Kimberly as a decent, caring woman who is unhappy and unable to stand up to others. They become friends in spite of differences.
During her time nannying, Ifemelu dates Kimberly's cousin, a wealthy man named, Curt, who actually cares for her but he represents a privileged class that makes Ifemelu restless with him. While he genuinely cares for her, his use of privilege and entitlement creates gaps in their relationship. For instance, he gets her a green card manipulating the process to speed it up because he is wealthy while Ifemelu's other friend works three jobs trying to get his visa. Curt also turns the story of Ifemelu's experience with a carpet cleaner, who is disgusted and angry when he mistakenly thinks Ifemelu owns Kimberly's mansion to acting relieved and nice when he discovers that she's just than nanny, into a funny anecdote with his friends versus a dehumanizing experience. Even while dating Curt she thinks of Obinze and idolizes their romance. Ifemelu's blog becomes successful and she dates another man, Blaine, but again does not connect with him. She decides to leave America and go back to Nigeria. While there she tries to write fluffy pieces for a magazine that caters to rich Nigerian women but cannot do it. Each move she makes gives her more peace with who she is and what she wants in life. She decides to fight the corruption in Nigeria and becomes active in a cause. She couldn't do this in America because of the lack of cultural history but she can in her own country. She rekindles her relationship with Obinze.
The notion of being an outsider in a new culture, Ifemelu's internal restlessness, and characters searching for self-identities kept my interest more than the unequal romantic relationships - although I did find the tension and misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships fascinating. The story addresses false assumptions that people have in different cultures not realizing that they are embracing stereotypes or racist attitudes. Africa is not a poor country that needs to be rescued by white people, black women don't need to wear their hair straight like white women, and women don't have to marry just for wealth, to name a few. The author provides a different narrative that looks at the history of America that lacks the post slavery anger and outrage. She also shows through characters such as Ifemelu's mother and a co-worker the dangers of being blinded to truths through religious fundamentalism. Adichie does not become preachy or single out any country and while Ifemelu could become too judgmental or point the finger, she retains empathy for others making her statements thoughtful. All places have issues and all have good aspects too. By having the protagonist be a successful blogger, the author is able to create snippets of biting, light, heavy, and humorous commentaries that add depth to the plot.
One of Ifemelu's blog posts examines cultural aspects of race that are not existent in Nigeria: The post's title is, "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby: Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't black in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up." Ifemelu doesn't consider race until she is forced to by complicated racial politics ingrained in American society.
When Ifemelu is dating Blaine, an African-American professor from Princeton, the cultural misunderstandings on race become even more pronounced. Blaine is outraged when the University of Princeton's police accuse a black man of drug dealing through racial profiling and organizes a protest. Ifemelu skips the protest; she can't relate to the history of oppression that makes Blaine so angry. This along with other incidents such as Blaine's sister Shan and his friends show the gap in her and Blaine's relationship revealing why they could not connect on a deeper level and move beyond dating.
The hair salon is an important symbol and foreshadows or reveals the struggles immigrants face dealing with white privilege, fitting-in, and racism. Ifemelu doesn't mask her Nigerian accent and the women look down on her for it. She used to speak with no accent but felt it was false and made her want to fit into America's definition of being a citizen. She watched her aunt and friend try to assimilate like this and didn't like that they were not being true to themselves. She develops her own American identity and later a Nigerian one. She grows more mature along the way and by the time she meets up with Obinze she knows what she wants and who she is. She also wants her hair natural, not artificially colored or flattened. Her identity crises are symbolized in her hair choices and the setting of the hair salon frames the story in a well-crafted way. I've only touched on a few themes and messages in the book that is ripe for many different kinds of discussions. A terrific story.