Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah stands out in my mind as a beautiful meditation on Nigeria, America, immigration, and race, but also because it is one of the few literary fiction books that I have read with a heavy focus on romance that has a happy ending. Ifemelu and Obinze date in high school and college, but are separated when Ifemelu moves to America to continue her education and Obinze goes to England. They live separate lives before they both end up back in Nigeria and meet again to begin their romance anew.
In a lot of the literary fiction books I have read (and this might just be the books I seek out), romances end tragically, usually with the women involved suffering through oppression or abuse. Emma Pearse’s article “Why Can’t Romance Novels Get Any Love?” talks about how romance is often (perhaps unfairly) labelled as anti-feminist and an encourager of oppression among women. As a self-labelled feminist, I think this is, at least partially, why I avoid the genre and end up reading what is the exact opposite; stories about the failures of romance and how it harms women. My mind jumps to Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, which I read not too long ago, where practically every woman in the book experiences a terrible relationship.
Americanah isn’t entirely the Bass Rock’s opposite. There are painful relationships. Characters cheat on one another and are dissatisfied with each other. The difference, though, seems to be that even in these imperfect relationships the characters are usually able to find some good. The entire book seems to follow the characters’ – especially Ifemelu’s – romances, where they serve as a sort of backbone along which we watch her learn. Romance isn’t always the focus of the novel, but it is ever-present.
Americanah feels like the middle ground between two extremes. It doesn’t approach romance with a fixed rosy outlook or adopt an extreme pessimism toward it. With Ifemelu’s relationship with Obinze, Adichie adopts a fairytale-like tone, telling the story of two people whose love for each other is overpowering and transcends the distance of fifteen years. (I say fairytale-like perhaps unfairly; I am closer to the romance pessimism camp and my bias shows through). Other characters, such as Ifemelu’s aunt, have negative relationships, the type found in the least romantic books. The difference seems to be that neither positive nor negative relationships dominate the story; instead, we see a combination of the two. In Americanah, even the perfect relationships have their issues and the negative relationships don’t have to last forever.
The relationships in Americanah are refreshing because of their complexity, but I’m not trying to say that romance always needs to be complex. Books that portray it negatively are trying to make a different point than books with a more positive and neutral outlook. There are people who have only been hurt, as well as people whose view of romance is completely sunny, and there should be books to represent both of these perspectives.
Pearse also writes about how romance is underrepresented in academic communities, which, in my experience, is the exact opposite of literary fiction. I’m not sure why they are so divided; many of the literary fiction books, even if relationships are often failures, include love. Shakespeare’s plays are often about love. Americanah has reminded me of this and prompted me to ask what qualifies as a romance novel, and whether we already read romance in academic settings anyway. That is not to say that the romantic fiction Pearse writes about doesn’t deserve a spot, because it definitely does. If some romance is already lauded as the greatest books of our time, then excluding the rest of it feels a bit arbitrary.