In Philadelphia, Ifemelu reunites with Ginika, her former classmate from Nigeria. Worried about money, Ifemelu prioritizes getting a job. She rents a room in a four-bedroom apartment; her roommates, Jackie, Elena, and Allison, puzzle her with their American idiosyncrasies.
Using the identity from the Social Security card that Aunty Uju gave her, Ifemelu hunts for a job. She feels as though “her autumn of half blindness had begun, the autumn of puzzlements, of experiences she had knowing there were slippery layers of meaning that eluded her.” Every job interview results in failure. She frequently calls Obinze to calm her because “with him, she could feel whatever she felt.” She also regularly calls Dike, whom she misses dearly.
Ifemelu finds school to be easy, but still constantly worries about money. She studies America because she wants to “wear a new, knowing skin right away.” Discovering the library, she reads voraciously:
And as she read, America’s mythologies began to take on meaning. America’s tribalisms—race, ideology, and region—became clear. And she was consoled by her new knowledge.
In her honors history seminar, Ifemelu participates in a conversation about the word “nigger,” arguing that it’s not always harmful. A “firm voice” also speaks, and after class Ifemelu meets the face that goes with the voice: Wambui. Wambui invites Ifemelu to come to the African Students Association meeting; there, “Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.”
Wambui helps Ifemelu in her job search, but still no one will hire her. On the phone with Aunty Uju one night, she learns that Aunty Uju and Dike are moving to Massachusetts to live with Bartholomew. Ifemelu is amazed that Aunty Uju will marry a man so beneath her.
In responding to an ad for a “female personal assistant for busy sports coach,” Ifemelu learns that she will be paid one hundred dollars a day if she can “give [the man] a massage, help [him] relax.” Though she knows “he was not a kind man” and she regrets responding to his ad, she still asks for time to consider the offer, knowing that the job could pay her monthly rent.
Ginika calls with a possible job lead: a woman, Kimberly, is looking for a babysitter. Ginika drives Ifemelu to the interview at “a house that announced its wealth.” Kimberly, a white woman, makes exaggerated efforts to appear sensitive to race and multiculturalism. Kimberly’s sister Laura also participates in the interview. Though both women believe themselves to be “woke,” they sound self-righteous and ignorant from their stance of white, wealthy privilege. Kimberly’s husband, Don, is equally ignorant. Ifemelu does not get the job.
By late fall, Ifemelu’s financial situation is dire. She has been desperately searching for work to no avail. Finally, she calls the sports coach back and takes the job. He invites her to come over right away.
When the man takes off his shirt and lays on the bed, Ifemelu tells him, “I can’t have sex.” He says he doesn’t expect that, but when she lays next to him, he touches her and makes her feel “sordid” and “tainted.” The man asks her to “work” twice a week.
After taking the train back home, Ifemelu scrubs her hands and throws away the clothes she was wearing, filled with disgust and regret for what she’s done. Ifemelu calls Aunty Uju to tell her what transpired, but Aunty Uju doesn’t really want to hear about it. She listens to a voicemail from Obinze and hearing his voice makes him seem “so...
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far away, part of another time and place.”
That night, as it snows, she imagines killing the coach. Winter fully descends, and Ifemelu does not answer the phone when Obinze calls, nor does she listen to his voicemails or read his emails. She feels herself “sinking, sinking quickly, and unable to pull herself up.”
Ifemelu sinks into a depression, surrounded by a pervasive feeling of “utter hopelessness.” She stops going to class, doesn’t answer her phone, and retreats into her bed.
When Ginika finally gets Ifemelu on the phone, she reports how worried everyone has been. She also has great news: Kimberly wants to hire Ifemelu, and she’ll pay cash under the table so Ifemelu doesn’t have to work with a fake identity and Social Security card.
Ginika picks up Ifemelu the next day to bring her to her job and tells Ifemelu, “I think you’re suffering from depression.” Ifemelu denies the diagnosis, but her self-loathing from her encounter with the sports coach has taken root inside her, and “she would never be able to form the sentences to tell her story.”
Ifemelu tells herself that she has a month to “let her self-loathing seep away,” and then she can call Obinze. But after a month, she still doesn’t communicate with him, knowing that “she would have to tell him what happened” and “she felt shamed; she had failed.” In the early spring, Obinze sends her a letter; she is unable to open it, and eventually it is buried beneath the piles of books in her room, unopened.
Ifemelu grows fond of Taylor and Morgan, Kimberly’s children. Laura maintains an “aggressive, unaffectionate interest,” while Kimberly is sweet and overly apologetic. Kimberly lets Ifemelu use the family’s car. Ifemelu notes that both Kimberly and Laura are unhappy women. Kimberly’s unhappiness is “inward, unacknowledged, shielded by her desire for things to be as they should,” while Laura’s is “spiky”: “she wished that everyone around her were unhappy because she had convinced herself that she would always be.”
When the carpet cleaner comes to prepare the house for a cocktail party fundraiser that Don and Kimberly are hosting, the man is initially hostile to Ifemelu, believing she is the homeowner. However, when Ifemelu clarifies that she is hired help, the man’s attitude instantly becomes friendly, as if “the universe was once again arranged as it should be.”
At the party, Kimberly introduces Ifemelu as “our babysitter and my friend,” and many guests respond with anecdotes about African charities they’re involved with.
That night, Ifemelu calls Aunty Uju and Dike. Since moving to Massachusetts, Dike has changed: his grades are worse, and he carries “a weariness too heavy for a child.” In their new white-majority town, Aunty Uju and Dike “stick out.”
On the weekend of Dike’s birthday, Ifemelu takes the train to Massachusetts. She decides to “stop faking an American accent,” for she asks herself after an exchange with a telemarketer who compliments her English, “Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American?”
On the train, Ifemelu takes a seat next to a man who introduces himself as Blaine, an assistant professor at Yale. He is “a man with skin the color of gingerbread. . . . She knew right away that he was African-American.” They flirt, and Ifemelu goes so far as to imagine herself in a relationship with him:
The more they talked, the more she told herself that this was no coincidence; there was a significance to her meeting this man on the day that she returned her voice to herself.
The two exchange phone numbers before Blaine gets off the train in New Haven. At Aunty Uju’s house, Ifemelu calls his number several times throughout the course of the weekend. He never answers or calls back.
The morning Ifemelu is at Aunty Uju’s is Dike’s first day of summer camp. When Dike comes home from camp, “there was a guardedness on his face, something close to sadness.” He tells Ifemelu that his camp counselor gave everyone but him sunscreen, saying he didn’t need it “because [he’s] dark.” In the future, Ifemelu writes a blog post about American tribalism: class, ideology, region, and race.