Last Updated on March 31, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242
In the present, a customer comes into the hair salon and expresses interest in a pile of Nigerian DVDs. When the women who work in the salon learn the customer is from South Africa, they praise her “extraordinary” American accent. The woman braiding Ifemelu’s hair asks Ifemelu why she doesn’t have an American accent, but Ifemelu ignores the question.
A white woman enters to get braids, and Ifemelu sees in her the “nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so.” Ifemelu begins to doubt her choice to move home, and thinks about her “own new American selves.” Ifemelu remembers her relationship with Curt, a cousin of Kimberly’s.
It begins when Ifemelu is playing frisbee with Taylor and notices that Curt “wanted” her. Though he describes himself as a “rich white guy,” he also talks about himself “with an uncluttered simplicity.” Ifemelu teases Kimberly that her cousin has “asked out the help.”
Curt has never dated a black woman before, and it puzzles Ifemelu that she can be “so attractive” to him. She doesn’t tell Curt anything about Obinze. With Curt, she does “things she would never have imagined herself doing before,” and happily slips into the role of his girlfriend. Curt’s optimism, happiness, and belief in goodness coalesce into an “infantile quality” that Ifemelu finds to be both “admirable and repulsive.”
Every Sunday, Ifemelu and Curt have brunch with Curt’s mother, an aloof woman whose only compliment to Ifemelu is, “Your lashes are pretty.”
Morgan comes to visit Ifemelu and Curt in Baltimore, and Ifemelu imagines herself married to Curt and the group as a family. When Ifemelu and Curt joke about marriage, she teases that his relatives will wonder “why the help was wearing the bride’s dress.”
Being in a relationship with Curt gives Ifemelu “a sense of contentment, of ease.” She’s been sending money home, and her father has gotten a job as the director of human resources in a bank.
As her graduation approaches, Ifemelu thinks about what to do with her degree in communications. Curt uses his connections to get Ifemelu an interview at an office in Baltimore. For the interview, Ruther, her career counselor at school, tells her to straighten her hair. At the hairdresser’s, Ifemelu’s head burns as the relaxer sets in. Curt is horrified that Ifemelu must make this change in order to look “professional,” but it works: Ifemelu gets the job, then writes a blog post about the WASP attributes to which American racial minorities aspire.
Ifemelu happily settles into her life in Baltimore: she rents an apartment, though she spends most of her time at Curt’s. He treats her to impromptu trips and constantly seeks affirmation that she is enjoying their time together.
Ifemelu’s hair begins to fall out because of the relaxants. She allows Wambui to cut it “short and stubby” and hates how it looks. She even calls out of work for three days because she doesn’t want to be seen in public. Using Curt’s laptop to look at black women with natural hair, she finds emails between Curt and another woman. While Curt tries to explain that nothing happened, Ifemelu packs a bag and leaves. When Curt comes by with flowers later, they take a walk together.
A website for natural hair brings Ifemelu solace, and she finds “gratitude” in its community, though some of the black people she sees in her daily life doubt her choice to wear her hair naturally. One morning, she wakes up and finally “[falls] in love with her...
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hair.” She writes a blog post on the “shades” of blackness in America.
Ifemelu brings Curt to meet Aunty Uju and Dike. Curt is charming and easily wins over both Aunty Uju and Dike. Aunty Uju admires the way Curt treats Ifemelu—he “holds her like an egg”—and criticizes Ifemelu’s natural hair. Aunty Uju is unhappy in her relationship with Bartholomew, saying that he is lazy and distant. When Ifemelu and Curt leave, Ifemelu feels “proud—to be with him, and of him.”
One morning, Aunty Uju sees a blob of toothpaste that Bartholomew left in the sink after brushing his teeth. Though the blob is there every morning, this particular morning she finds it unbearable. She tells Bartholomew that she is leaving him and that she and Dike are moving to a condo in a town called Willow.
Ifemelu writes a blog post about the way that African nationalities don’t matter in America: a black person is simply black.
At the mall, Ifemelu sees Kayode DaSilva, an old school friend from Nigeria. Kayode is still in touch with Obinze and shares that Obinze moved to England last year. Unsettled by the news, Ifemelu abruptly ends their conversation. In the car, she shares the encounter with Curt, who senses that something is “bothering” Ifemelu. That afternoon, Ifemelu sends an email to Obinze, calling him “Ceiling” in her opening address. He does not reply.
The narrative shifts from Ifemelu to Obinze, who is in London working out an arranged marriage so that he can get British citizenship; his own visa has expired. Obinze is paying two Angolan men £2200 to facilitate the sham marriage. The woman Obinze will marry, Cleotilde, is twenty-three and has lived in London for six years. They spend time getting to know one another in order to pass their immigration interview.
When Obinze goes to get the marriage license, he sees the name of an old school friend on a board listing upcoming weddings. The memory takes Obinze “back to a time when he still believed the world would bend according to his will,” and he becomes nostalgic. He thinks back to the many times he applied for a visa to America only to be turned away by each interviewer. His job applications yielded nothing, and he spent a year adrift, living with his mother and wasting time.
Finally, his mother told him that she was going to attend a conference in London, and she would list him as her “research assistant” in order to get him a six-month visa and “see what [he] can do with [his] life.” Though this action goes against all of her principles, the two of them both know that he has failed to make something of himself in Nigeria.
During the three years Obinze spends in England, he speaks to his mother only a few times, only to later feel “disgusted with his own entitlement, his blindness to her.”
Obinze’s first job is cleaning toilets in an office building in London for three pounds per hour. The evening he quits, he gets an email from Ifemelu apologizing for her silence. He has waited so long to hear from her and has been so confused by her silence:
He missed her, a longing that tore deep into him. He resented her. He wondered endlessly what might have happened.
Even so, he deletes the email.
Obinze’s cousin Nicholas is also in London with his family: his wife Ojiugo and their children Nna and Nne. Obinze lives with them while he searches for a job and observes with interest the differences between family life in Nigeria and in England.