"Mr. and Mrs. Doctor" by Julie Ironuanya, Coffee House Press, 292 pages, $16.95 paperback
The Nebraska landscape and culture, so familiar and comfortable to most of us, is the minefield in which Job and Ifi, a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage, begin their lives together in America. Job Ogbonnaya is a classic antihero whose story begins with the earnest pursuit of a dream prescribed, and paid for, by his Igbo father: to be a doctor in America. This dream is thwarted by an inhospitable new country where Job is immobilized by systemic racism and by his own inability to finish college and attend medical school. The failure of this dream and Job’s powerlessness to reconcile his pride with the reality of his circumstances is the root of a grandiose deception that drives Julie Iromuanya’s first novel, "Mr. and Mrs. Doctor."
Job is acutely aware of American abundance, and he wants an extravagant American life for himself. To this end, Job works hard at two hourly jobs with a vain hope of someday returning to medical school to become a doctor. In his intense focus on status and success, he is unwilling to admit his failure. Job’s marriage and his American life are fabricated on the premise that he is a practicing doctor, and he propagates this lie by dressing as a doctor and referring to himself and his wife as “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor.”
Job’s delusions of grandeur lead to conflict with his new wife, Ifi, who is unbeguiled by his deceits. She cannot square their life in a squalid apartment with her understanding of American wealth. Amidst the indignities and humiliations of her circumstances, Ifi embraces their duplicitous life and begins to manufacture her own lavish stories about her American home. She scours design magazines, creates elaborate descriptions and writes letters home about her life in America. Ifi’s letters are heartbreakingly aspirational but suffused with neophobia and homesickness for Nigeria.
When one of these letters falls into Job’s hands, he makes even greater efforts to convince his family and friends of his success as a physician. Job dresses his wife in a (faux) fur coat and buys her a big-screen TV, which he believes to represent wealth in America. Through these gestures, he convinces himself of his own prosperity and superiority. This delusion manifests directly in his interactions with fellow Igbo immigrant, Emeka, who lives a parallel life of legitimate success. Emeka seems to embody the American Dream, and Job is absurdly resentful. In overtures of wealth, Job repeatedly and gratuitously offers, even flings, money to Emeka, who responds with equally grotesque displays of wealth. Each of the characters falls victim, in turn, to the human weakness that we all share: the need for acceptance and approval, and to see ourselves reflected well in the eyes of others.
The perennial immigrant tale of heartbreak, poverty and discrimination rings familiar in "Mr. and Mrs. Doctor," even in the American heartland where we pride ourselves on friendliness and acceptance. Job and Ifi represent the reality of immigrants who have no path forward in America, but no lifeline back to their homeland. Eventually, Job and Ifi come to realize, even if they cannot accept, who they really are: Two who no longer belonged there, but would never fully belong here: foreign Americans.
Erin Willis is curator of the Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors at Bennett Martin Public Library.