Review by Jaimie Eubanks
Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, opens with one of the most delightful first sentences I have ever read. “Everything Job Ogbonnaya knew about sex he learned from American pornography.” Who is this Job Ogbonnaya? I wondered. I soon learned that he was Mr. Doctor, an Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., and a big, fat liar.
When the novel begins, Job has just married Ifi. It was an arranged marriage, and he traveled from his American home in Nebraska to Port Harcourt, Nigeria to meet her. She is proud to have married an American doctor; she is older than she claimed to be; she is dubious about her new life. There are holes in the wall of their cockroach-infested Nebraska apartment, despite the fact that Job wears a lab coat and stethoscope whenever he leaves for work. Ifi is right to be suspicious— Job is not a doctor, but a nursing assistant. Twenty years earlier, he moved to America to become a doctor, but dropped out of college and used a portion of his tuition money to buy U.S. citizenship through marriage to a woman named Cheryl. Job works desperately to hide his work as a nursing assistant, afraid to disappoint Ifi by admitting the truth. Ifi is disappointed from the outset. America is not what she thought, and she knows Job is hiding something. Theirs is not the marriage she expected.
Iromuanya writes from both points of view with a great deal of sympathy. This may be because Iromuanya herself grew up in the Midwest to Nigerian immigrant parents, so her depictions of Job and Ifi feel complex and well-rounded. I admit that I almost always felt Ifi was in the right— particularly early on in the novel. After all, Job is a man committed to long-term deception. Who could trust such a person? But through Job’s eyes, I eventually understood why the lie was so important, and how he could insist on keeping up the pretense. A lie this large takes on a life of its own. How could he possibly come clean?
“You will be trained as a nurse, and we will build a clinic in Nigeria. I promise.”
She believed him.
And he believed himself. It was all very simple.
Job’s lie stems from an insecurity that informs every facet of his life— his job, his friendships, his marriage. His entire purpose in coming to America was to become a doctor, a success. So he must lie to protect his reputation, and he believes that if he has a plan, he will be able to make that lie into a truth before anybody catches on. It is a simple plan.
The outlandish premise goes down smooth, and I often found myself ripping through pages as if I was reading a suspense thriller and not a literary domestic drama. I wondered: What will happen next? What will Job do when, in the first weeks of his marriage to Ifi, the woman he married for citizenship reenters his life demanding money? Will he tell Ifi? Will he layer lie on top of lie? I was in a state of near-constant curiosity and surprise.
The delicious anticipation is partially the result of the novel’s plot, but also the result of the prose itself. Job and Ifi’s thoughts and dialogue are written in a Nigerian-American dialect, and while the narrative and description are presented in more conventional English, the rhythm of their speech permeates the text. The writing is musical, natural, and easy to read. Entire paragraphs are absorbed in one gulp:
There was no sense in giving Emeka fodder for gossip or his unrelenting, unsolicited advice— You know, my friend, there are three things a man must do in his native land: marry, bury, and retire. America is the stepping-stone. If you cannot make it here, then go home a joke— and so they spent most free evenings in airless rooms, sweating into the yellowed armpits of their favorite topic.
“A-ah! A-mer-eeka!” Emeka clapped again.
I loved the readability of the prose, the anticipation of wondering what might happen next, and the frequent surprises Iroumanya served up, but early in the novel, I found many of these surprises jarring. There was a whiplash effect. Where did that come from? I would flip back ten or fifteen pages, looking for some clue I had missed. Sure enough, the clues were always there.
Iromuanya’s ability to surprise is masterful, and she employs that ability with great purpose. She is not offering surprise for surprise’s sake. Instead, she is putting the reader into the shoes of a Nigerian immigrant, new to America, and completely uncertain of what to expect. In a world so far removed from the life they knew, even cause and effect begin to seem unpredictable and random. Job and Ifi experience what it feels like to be someplace completely unfamiliar, and Iromuanya, in turn, gives the reader that same experience. All of the clues to what happens next are present, but obscured by a cacophony of sight , sound, and Americanness that is alternately thrilling and distressing.
I’ve never read a novel that so directly articulates the American dream as we have come to know it, both in its strengths and in its absurd idealism. Whether it is Job’s frequent use of American idioms (“Time is money in America.”) or Ifi’s optimism (“I can do anything here. I can be anything here. Like you,” she said. “I can be a doctor in America if I like.”) or the frequent incredulous exclamations (“Only in America.”), we get a taste of the American experience.
This exploration of the American dream is pitted against true American struggles— struggles with class and racism. This is not just white against black racism, although that is consistently present throughout, but also stark cultural divides within the black community. When Job is assaulted outside that same gas station by a group of African American teenage boys, the police interrogate him as if he is a criminal, a possible drug dealer, and not as what he is: a victim attempting to file a police report. When asked to describe the assailants, the officer repeats, “But they were black, though. Black like you.”
“Yes, they were my color, but no, not like me,” Job says.
Over and over, Job and Ifi are told by white Americans that they are the same as American-born African Americans, despite their incredibly different cultures. For Job, this breeds resentment. Job says, “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.” He is Nigerian, and proud to be. While Job wonders how anybody could look at him and think he was the same as the men who had assaulted him, Ifi finds comfort and camaraderie with her African American neighbors.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is an example of the social novel at its best. Each variation of racial, cultural, and class tension is guided by Iromuanya’s purposeful hand to show not just part of the American experience, but all of it.
What struck me most about Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is its absolute realism. The novel surprised me, particularly because it was unlike a novel. The ending is messy and complicated— exactly what would happen in real life. Until reading Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, I had only the most peripheral awareness of how unlike life a novel truly is. Iromuanya redefines the American dream we have come to know, rips it apart, reshapes it, and gives it back to the reader as Job, Ifi, and thousands of new immigrants have come to discover it. It is imperfect, riveting, bittersweet, and beautiful.