Is "summer reading" still a thing? Do people still enthuse over "beach books"? Sure, the idea appeals to overworked periodical arts section editors desperate to stuff their shrinking pages with some easy content, but the idea of beach reading seems quaint somehow. Readers should feel comfortable in the knowledge that any kind of book—including the trashy, the dumb, the deeply strangulated by constricting conventions of genre—can be enjoyed at any time of the year, with no seasonal apologies necessary, but you should also feel welcome to read Dostoevsky by the shore.
On a recent vacation, I took along some serious books: Christa Parravani's Her, a maddening, mournful eulogy for the author's twin sister; Give Me Everything You Have, James Lasdun's egotistical account of being stalked. I took some fluff: Matthew Hughes's funny, Satan-meets-superheroes comedy The Damned Busters; Robert Harris's excellent, wildly off-the-rails thriller Archangel. But only one book left me feeling satisfied and different, in the way that a great reading experience should. It was a novel called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I can't say enough good things about it.
Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who comes to America to continue her studies. She leaves behind her first love, a serious young man named Obinze. They keep in touch, the way young lovers do, and then something happens, and all of a sudden they're strangers to each other. Ifemelu grows up to enjoy her life in America, but Obinze's parallel story always haunts her.
Adichie, who grew up in Nigeria herself, documents the way "enlightened" Americans revere foreign cultures—especially those they consider to be more primitive than our own—while at the same time expecting immigrants to be weirdly deferential to American opportunity. A woman named Kelsey comes into Ifemelu's friend Mariama's hair salon and tries to strike up a conversation.
[Kelsey] asked where Mariama was from, how long she had been in America, if she had children, how her business was doing.
"Business is up and down but we try," Mariama said.
"But you couldn't even have this business back in your country, right? Isn't it wonderful that you get to come to the US and now your kids can have a better life?"
Mariama looked surprised. "Yes."
"Are women allowed to vote in your country?" Kelsey asked.
A longer pause from Mariama. "Yes."
But looming over everything in Americanah—more disruptive, even, than the experience of being an immigrant—is race. This is a novel that takes America's racial politics on directly, often in the form of autobiographical blog posts written by Ifemelu. Here's the ending of one titled "Why Dark-Skinned Black Women—Both American and Non-American—Love Barack Obama" (much of the narrative takes place in 2008, when Obama's presidential campaign was striking up this conversation):
In movies, dark black women get to be the fat nice mammy or the strong, sassy, sometimes scary sidekick standing by supportively. They get to dish out wisdom and attitude while the white woman finds love. But they never get to be the hot woman, beautiful and desired and all. So dark black women hope Obama will change that. Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.
This is a Dickensian novel, by which I mean most polite novelists would happily chop off limbs rather than challenge the social issues. Ifemelu dates different American men—a black man who changes cultural codes to fit every situation he's in without even really realizing it; a privileged, wealthy white man who angrily fights for Ifemelu when she is discriminated against, without considering the racial implications of his actions—and devotes dozens of pages to the incredibly complicated racial politics of hair. Americanah's tone is chatty and light but pointed, and the thick book has the space to breathe and examine the topic of race in America from multiple angles. (Ifemelu even acknowledges that her role as an outsider who wasn't born into America's racial politics means that she has an imperfect understanding of the context.)
This isn't the kind of book that Barnes & Noble's marketing staff would sell as a "summer read." But I can't imagine a more perfect book for this summer, when George Zimmerman walked free and in so doing revealed all the maggoty harm hiding just beneath the surface of America. Americanah's not a summer book. It's this summer's book.