Debut novelist Julie Iromuanya holds a long list of accolades: published by The Kenyon Review and the Tampa Review, among others; shortlisted for several prizes, including ones from our Portland publishing comrade Glimmer Train; earned a Ph.D. and was a Presidential Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—the list goes on. She clearly comes at novel writing from a sophisticated and measured perspective, and the craft shown within her debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, is evidence of that.
The novel centers on Job and Ifi, a Nigerian couple trying to build a life together in Nebraska. Job’s family sent him to America to become a doctor and provide for them in Nigeria. It is that promise of prosperity, stability, and status that attracts Ifi, whose marriage to Job is orchestrated by their families. She arrives in America having met Job only once before their marriage, and is shocked to discover that Job’s life is a well-maintained lie: he is not a doctor, but a college dropout. Their life begins not in a mansion, but in a crumbling walk-up apartment replete with cockroaches. In her letters home, Ifi describes the house she does not have:
Yes, Ifi wrote in another letter, there are already four bedrooms, but because my husband is considering the inclusion of a home library to store all of his medical diagrams and journals, we are discussing with contractors the possibility of adding a fifth room.
Aunty, she concluded, you would not recognize me for the skinny girl who left home.
And thus Ifi intertwines her fate with Job’s—his lie becomes her lie, and they will do whatever they can to sustain it, although the far-flung consequences of such a falsehood will eventually be their undoing. The novel does excellent work in creating two characters whose desires are not necessarily aligned—who sometimes do not even really like each other—but whose lives are so intrinsically interconnected that they end up with a common goal. Ifi and Job desperately want to succeed, to keep up appearances, even at the cost of their own happiness.
The cast is flush with memorable characters, from the nosy and judgmental neighbor who encourages Ifi to leave Job; to Emeka and Gladys, also Nigerian immigrants to America, whose competitive nature sours their friendship with Ifi and Job; to Cheryl, the red-headed American woman with raw, knobby knees who Job married for citizenship (and quickly divorced). Their lives weave in and out of each other’s in a sprawling narrative spanning years, yet always remaining tightly written, returning to the main thread of Ifi and Job’s marriage and their efforts at making a life in America.
Herself the daughter of Igbo Nigerian immigrants, Iromuanya deconstructs the myth of the American dream and instead tells a truer story, one with fully realized characters who strive, but often still fail, against the backdrop of a country in which they are unable to find real belonging. She does not gloss over the aggressions and insults that America offers to its newest citizens, and deftly conveys the complicated and fraught racial position of an African immigrant. When Job reports that he has been beaten and his car stolen, the officer on duty interrogates him:
“So they were African American, like you?”
“Yes. I mean no. Not African American. I am not African American. I am from Africa. I am a citizen. I am an American, but I am no African American.”
“I see.” In apparent confusion, the officer frowned. “But they were black, though. Black like you?”
“No. Not like me.”
“Were they my color, then?”
“No.” Job glared at the officer’s pinkish flesh. Then his. He stared for a long time. “They were this color. One maybe a little lighter. Two maybe the same.”
“Black, like you.”
In her incisive characterization and plotting, Iromuanya offers a fresher take on the nature of America and whether it is truly the land of opportunity.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is an exceedingly well-crafted examination of marriage, expectation, appearances, and what happens after one’s carefully crafted idea of self has finally crumbled. Heartbreaking, occasionally wryly hilarious, and told in a spare, sensory style, this thoughtful debut novel ranks high in this year’s literary fiction.
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood