A good man is hard to find in Nigeria | Review of Ufuomaee’s ‘The Naïve Wife’

by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

That famous opener by Jane Austen would also be true of women these days. At least of Nigerian women. Or maybe a Nigerian woman—the kind at the centre of The Naïve Wife, the breezy new book series from Ufuomaee. Her name is Rachel and when we meet her at the start of the first book, titled Rachel’s Choice, she is often running some commentary on the men she meets—her comments are mostly about looks—but it is her younger half-sister getting married. This, as you can imagine, is a tricky situation for women of a certain age.

So, there she is: a God-fearing woman working as a radio personality seeking a man for whom she would leave her father—her mum is late—but it hasn’t quite worked out. Soon enough, there are two men who might stand a chance, or well, give her hopes for matrimony a chance. Ejike, brother to her sister’s groom, and Doug, friend to Ejike. They are both good looking but that is where the vital stats end. Ejike is clearly a lady’s man; Doug isn’t quite cut from the same cloth. Ejike comes from truly wealthy stock; Doug, on the other hand, has borrowed Ejike’s vehicle.

The choice should be easy, right? Maybe—but as you maybe remember, a disadvantage can make a hustler out of the disadvantaged. And so it is that Doug goes in fast and hard. And at some point, Ejike comes to see Rachel at her place and is faced with a territorial Doug winding his territorial arm around the territory that is Rachel’s waist. Checkmate. But the facts of wealth are the facts of wealth: when Doug, much too early, proposes to Rachel by singing Stevie Wonder’s lovely tune ‘For Your Love’, the first thing she notices is his shoes: “an old pair of loafers”. Her first thought is “No.” Her second is: “How can this man look after me?”

One of the reasons that scene is believable is Ufuomaee’s investment in the characterisation of Rachel. As protagonist, she comes off the page and you can perhaps consider her as an amalgam of any number of Nigerian young women you know. She may be just down your street. Whatever the case, the lady is the story’s most believable character and it’s a smart narrative strategy that Ufuomaee has made the series revolve around her, her godliness, and her all-too-familiar chagrin at being let down by the Nigerian male. In one key scene, she has just found out that her fiancé has lied to her about owning a car. Upon confronting him, he attempts to downplay his culpability.

“Look, it was an honest mistake,” he says. “You thought it was my car. I didn’t want to correct you.”

“So, it’s my fault now?”

“Why are you being like this, Rache? I said I’m sorry. You have to understand that being with someone like you would be daunting for a man like me. I just didn’t want you to see me any less worthy…”

It sounds like a reasonable thing to say—in fact, it is true—but that is hardly the point and Rachel berates him, saying, “If you can lie about that, what else are you lying about?”

The exchange has an immediate emotional repercussion, but it also is a subtle annotation on the intersection between capitalism and romance in a country divided as much by ethnicity as it is by class and economic status. In the current epoch of narratives dealing with Nigerian romance, some of the most celebrated stories have focused on ethnicity, the primary example being The Wedding Party, which has remained a top 3 earner at the Nigerian box office. It is perhaps easy to see how that is the case, given the ready-made comedy in stories featuring a clash of cultures.

It is much less easy to carve out comic antics from a story about money in a time of so much wealth and crushing poverty. One of The Naïve Wife’s pleasures comes from facing this difficulty head-on. In the first book, Doug’s less than wealthy background is one of the hurdle’s Rachel has to jump through or, well, go under. Just as important a hurdle is his insistence on presenting himself as different from his actual circumstance. Suddenly, the popular social media line “Thank God I don’t look like what I’m going through” attains a much less attractive connotation.

It is to the writer’s credit that she doesn’t quite situate the possibility of Doug’s lies unravelling as the sole element of suspense in the story. Halfway through the first book, it becomes obvious that another part of the suspense lies within Rachel: Will she give in to the accretion of evidence against this man trying to win her over? Will she reconsider the acclaimed womaniser Ejike, who somehow isn’t banished from the narrative even after losing the cold war for what the reader imagines is Rachel’s warm heart?

I would like to avoid spoilers, so it should be sufficient for this review to inform you that Rachel, after a torrid few days, receives this counsel from her stepmother towards the end of the first book:

“You see, men are like babies. We think they grow up and mature because they become big, but they remain babies. Like babies, they are very needy for validation from their women. They need the assurance that you believe in them, and you support them. And as they grow, it gets worse because apart from needing your support, they need to be needed by you. All men! Every one of them. Even your father.”

Whether you believe all of that comes down to whether you are male or female. But what seems unarguable is that in a serious relationship, support and validation are important. In any case, Rachel seems to think of the counsel as useful. As Rachel’s Choice ends, the story skips three months ahead and we find our lead character writing in a journal. That journal takes centre-stage in the second book, which is aptly titled Rachel’s Diary. On its front cover, the words “I thought he was a safe choice, but maybe I was his safe bet…”

That sets the tone for a book that almost immediately showcases our heroine’s emotional anguish. “She should pray, but that’s something she’s been doing less of these days. She can’t help but feel let down by God.”

At the bottom of this anguish is the choice in the title of the earlier book. Rachel is a victim of Rachel’s choice. The whole thing didn’t quite work out as expected it seems. In its attempt to show and not tell the reader how awry the situation has become for its lead character, the narrative becomes overburdened with ways to hold and convey the depths of its protagonist’s despair. For example, there are a couple of contrivances that almost undermine the plot: on separate occasions, callers to Rachel’s radio show tell her about their problems, which are almost entirely the same problems she is going through off-air. The conceit allows the book show just how badly things have turned out, but this part of the book’s plot feels much too premeditated.

The narrative gets its verve back when it moves out of the country and, like in the first book, two men are implicated in the plot’s turns. And for the first time, there is an explicit reference to a theme outside of the series’ love and romance. Looking at the US surrounding she has landed in, Rachel marvels. She “can’t help but compare how advanced and well maintained they are compared to her home country’s” but the theme isn’t pursued further. The Naïve Wife might have its politics, but it is not that kind of political book. Its twin narrative gods are romance and religion.

So, when a somewhat old flame of Rachel comes into the picture in the US, it does appear like there would be a collision of American freedoms and Nigerian conservativeness. And so it is that not long after she arrives in the US, Rachel receives this old flame and watches him “as he walks down the hall to the living area, the sleeves of his shirt folded up, revealing thick, slightly hairy, fair arms. His shirt is still tucked into his trousers, and she notices how narrow his waist is. Damn, he’s fine. She looks away as he draws closer.”

The description is straight from the land of romcoms and appears inspired by a mix of movies and Harlequin novels. Ordinarily, it should be an uneasy marriage pairing a romance story with a clearly Christian viewpoint. But somehow Ufuomaee manages to wed these presumably disparate ideas together. She seems to be saying that it is fine for the believer to also want butterflies in her stomach in courtship and marriage.

To get that perhaps controversial point across, she has employed a style that is easy to read. She has also spread out her tale across three books, allowing the story to breathe. And by the end of the second book, the reader has followed Rachel on her journey to knowing what she really wants from the man she ends up with—but it is anything but straightforward.

As it stands, Rachel—unlike her creator—doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. But that needs to change because at the end of Rachel’s Diary, Rachel is on the brink of another decisive choice. You could say it is even more important this time because, as everybody knows, the only thing harder than picking a life partner is deciding to stay or leave that partner. What happens next? Will she stay? Will she go?

For that, you (and I) must turn to the last part of this page-turning series. It is titled Rachel’s Hope—and has just been released. I hope it satisfies all our curiosities.

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