Ifemelu is a Nigerian woman living in Princeton, New Jersey. Her primary source of income for the past several years has been her blog about race and class, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, but by the time the novel opens she has decided to shut down her blog and move to Nigeria, where she has a job waiting for her at a women's magazine called Zoe. In fact, she has already made the necessary arrangements. She has broken up with her boyfriend, Blaine, sold her condo, and shipped her car to Nigeria—all of which surprises her friends and family. She has been living in America for ten years, and it seems to them like she is throwing her life away.
Ifemelu is determined, however. She visits Mariama African Hair Braiding, a hair salon specializing in black hair. This isn't Ifemelu's usual salon, which is closed while the owner is on vacation in Côte d'Ivoire. It doesn't take Ifemelu long to realize that she doesn't like the stylists at this new salon. Her stylist, Aisha, has two Igbo boyfriends in spite of the large pink sores on her arms that look like they might start to ooze at any moment. Irritated, Ifemelu attempts to read, then sends a brief email to her ex-boyfriend, Obinze, whom she affectionately calls "Ceiling" (a reference to how, when he touched her in bed, she couldn't see the ceiling, even though her eyes were wide open). She tells him that she will be moving back to Nigeria soon.
Obinze receives Ifemelu's email while he is stuck in traffic in Lagos. He is now a successful businessman in Nigeria and has a daughter, Buchi, with his wife, Kosi. He is amazed at the turn his life has taken and loves his daughter, though he is just coasting through his marriage, pretending to love Kosi. Ifemelu's email throws him, stirring up old emotions just as moving has for her. This prompts Adichie to take readers back in time, relating the story of Ifemelu's life. She is born in Nigeria, not far from the town of Nsukka. Her mother is a devout Christian who gets taken in by an overzealous church. Her father works for a federal agency until he gets fired for refusing to call his female boss "Mummy." He can't find work, and Ifemelu's family lives in poverty. Meanwhile, Aunty Uju becomes the mistress of the General, an important man with connections in Nigeria's ruling class. The General keeps Aunty Uju living in style, and Ifemelu's parents occasionally borrow money from Aunty Uju to pay the rent. In spite of these hardships, Ifemelu continues to excel in school.
Ifemelu and Obinze meet as teenagers. Originally, Obinze is set up with Ginika, Ifemelu's shy, quiet friend, but he pursues Ifemelu instead. Theirs is a good match. Both are excellent students, and both enjoy reading, though they don't always agree about books. Obinze's mother—a tenured professor at Nsukka University—encourages Obinze's love of books. Rumors circulate that his mother started a physical fight with another professor, but in reality the other professor (a male) struck her because he couldn't bear to be publicly accused of mishandling funds by a woman. This prompted her to take a two-year sabbatical in Lagos, where Obinze meets and falls in love with Ifemelu. Obinze's mother approves of their relationship. She is, however, concerned about them having sex, and when Ifemelu has a pregnancy scare, Obinze's mother gives them a lecture about contraceptives.
Obinze wants to attend the University of Ibadan because of J. P. Clark's poem "Ibadan." He changes his mind, however, when his mother suddenly collapses in a library. He decides to enroll at Nsukka University in order to be close to her, and Ifemelu joins him out of love. Unfortunately, their time at university is marred by the frequent teacher strikes that take place. Many students decide to transfer to foreign universities. Ifemelu is one of them. She takes the SATs and then enrolls with Ginika at a college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before she leaves, she and Obinze make a plan: he is going to come to America as soon as he graduates. He will find some way to get a visa. They will be together. Not long after she arrives, though, Ifemelu breaks off contact. Her life in America is hard—much harder than she expected. She has trouble finding work, and Aunty Uju, with whom she stays in New York the summer before moving to Philadelphia, has to work three jobs while she studies for her medical exams. Finally, Aunty Uju passes her exams. She becomes a doctor, and Ifemelu starts school.
Ifemelu's experiences in New York have left her wary, however. Her scholarship is only partial, and there isn't enough left over after tuition to cover the rent. She tries to find work in a restaurant or an office but keeps getting passed over—possibly because of her skin color. One day, desperate to pay rent, she accepts a "job" that involves "relaxing" a rich, insensitive tennis coach. He gives her $100 to have sex with him. Afterward, she feels dirty and cheap, and she's too ashamed to call Obinze or tell him what has happened to her in America. Instead, she goes silent and doesn't speak to him for years. Thankfully, she receives a real job offer shortly after the incident with the tennis coach. She is hired as a nanny for two children, Morgan...
(The entire section is 2254 words.)