Book Review: Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
Julie Iromuanya will have a reading and Q&A session at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word on Saturday, September 30, 2017, 10:00am at the Seedboat Gallery. Iromuanya’s Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is a novel about Job and Ifi, an immigrant couple in an arranged marriage, and the outrageous lie that brought them together. After a short reading, there will be an open discussion about writing craft and the writing life. Iromuanya will also participate in the Round Table with Writers on Sunday, October 1 at 1:00pm at the Seedboat Gallery.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya (2015 Minneapolis: Coffee House Press)
Reviewed by Mary E. Hotvedt
An inherited Nigerian Dream meets a fractured American Dream in Julie Iromuanya’s stunning debut novel. The aptly-named Job has gone to Nebraska from Nigeria to pursue his father’s plan for him to become a doctor. Job’s older brother, the family star, was to have fulfilled that ambition, but he died in the Biafran war. Job returns to Nigeria to take a wife, Ifi, in an arrangement made by their families. The marriage starts with a lie on each one’s part: Ifi pretends to be much younger than she is, and Job passes himself off as the doctor that he has never become.
The mismatched couple return to Nebraska to pursue the dream of upward mobility and success that will allow them to return home one day as substantial citizens. They will open a clinic and Ifi will be Job’s nurse. But life in Nebraska is hard-bitten and far from the America imagined by many immigrants. Job is actually a nursing assistant on the night shift at the local hospital and later a worker in one of Nebraska’s many meat-packing plants. He hides his real work from Ifi for years, or thinks he does. Ifi joins in the deceit by writing letters back home about their glamorous home.
As we follow Job’s and Ifi’s lives, we meet Job’s best friends from Nigeria, Emeka and Gladys, who have climbed higher up the economic ladder—although not without problems. And then there is Cheryl, Job’s first wife, a green-card marriage with consequences, and her bum of a brother; a nosy neighbor; and a thief who turns into a friend to Ifi.
There are wonderful convolutions in Iromuanya’s novel, the kinds of sudden twists that real life takes. Some are funny, some painful and heart-wrenching. All are fascinating. The author describes her scenes well and treats her very human and flawed people with understanding for their complexity.
We discuss immigration on a national and international scale. Border walls, quotas, travel bans, boats washing up in the Mediterranean are daily subjects in the news. We debate what it means to be an American, whether our country is to be an open or closed society. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor takes on those issues in a small and subtle way, a personal way, which makes it a powerful book.
What does it mean if you let go of the Dream, either Nigerian or American? Who is Job if he is not the successful physician? Who is Ifi when she can no longer support his fantasy? Which of them becomes more “American” as their lives progress? I recommend that you savor this book, watch the unfolding of each person as they work out their place in a far less than perfect America.
Julie Iromuanya is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction. She earned her B.A. at the University of Central Florida and her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she was a Presidential Fellow and award-winning teacher. She is an assistant professor in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Arizona. Learn more about Iromuanya at julieiromuanya.com.