Title: Stay With Me
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Reviewed By Jite Phido
One of my favourite things in the world is a romance novel. In fact, the cheesier and more predictably light and fluffy, the better. It’s almost like I’m seeking an alternate reality where happily ever after is one-dimensional and predictable. This is not at all what you will find in Ayobami Adebayo’s novel, Stay With Me. In fairness, Stay With Me starts off like the perfect Nigerian love story- an epic happily ever after of a perfect, young, upwardly-mobile couple perfectly in-sync with one other. Yejide and Akin are a married couple, both successful in their own rights and desperately in love. Everything is perfect for the couple except for their lack of offspring but even in this, the couple is united against extended family forces that seek to tear them apart. In short, Yejide and Akin’s love seems disgustingly perfect and unshakeable. There’s just one problem- the couple’s desperation which threatens to drive them apart and destroy the foundations of their entire family. Akin is desperate to do anything to make his wife happy and Yejide is desperate for acceptance and family.
Whilst the themes of fertility and familial pressure are not unfamiliar in Nigerian literature, Ayobami Adebayo’s novel takes things a step further exploring themes of masculinity, motherhood, sexuality, acceptance, love and grief and the extents to which people will go to protect themselves from hurt and pain. Stay With Me starts as an epic romance novel but deals with the important albeit unromantic issues of mental health, polygamy, trauma and family secrets. The kind of love that runs through the novel is not of the pretty, light-hearted, romantic kind- it’s dark and ugly and hard and full of mistakes- the train-wreck kind of love you can’t look away from, the kind of love you keep turning the pages for, hoping for a happy ending for the characters.
This novel shines most in its development of the characters in that not a single one of them is perfect. Like all of us, they are flawed and make terrible mistakes- but Adebayo is also clever in making the characters have the self-awareness to recognize their mistakes and flaws, whether or not they choose to fix them. The story is told from two perspectives. In mostly alternating chapters, Yejide and Akin tell the story of their past and present in the first person, giving an insight into their psyche and making the story feel more personal as though we’re taking an actual glimpse into the situation from their perspective. For some readers, a first person narrative doesn’t work, but for me, this is the only way such a visceral, deeply psychological romance could have been told and Ayobami Adebayo’s execution of this style is flawless.
Integral to the plot is the sociopolitical climate of the mid-80s and early 90s. In fact, all the major milestones in Yejide and Akin’s relationship, both good and bad, happen at climaxes of sociopolitical turmoil. It’s as though Yejide and Akin allow the turbulent political climate to influence their relationship and make it turbulent as well. There are lots of descriptions of coups and attempted coups and plots of political intrigue and alleged betrayals and these mirror the romantic plot directly.
This novel is deep but not the sort of deep that you need liquor, a dictionary of African proverbs and an entire year to finish. Rather, it is the kind of deep that grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go. You won’t be able to put this down and it will haunt you till you pick it up to start reading again. I’ve described this book as a romance but that’s not quite accurate. Yes, it’s very fast-paced and easy to read like your typical well-done romantic drama, but it is ultimately a novel about people and love and fear and hurt. If you’re a fan of a good romance novel like I am, this one will snatch your edges right off and leave you wondering what to think because it is so unexpected. Even now, an hour after finishing it, I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. When I read the first couple of chapters this morning, I had no idea that I would end the evening as flummoxed and stunned and discombobulated as I am right now. It all happened so fast that I’m not sure how we got to the end from the beginning- but don’t worry, the novel is really easy to follow, just very surprising. I will however recommend it not because the writing and the story are excellent (which by they way, they are!) but because I need you to read it as well and comment and let me know what you think.
TLDR: A novel set in South West Nigeria about a married couple’s “happily ever after” in the face of pressures from their family. Basically what would happen if Romeo and Juliet’s families had approved of their nuptials but they had still been enemies of fate. Except without (so much) main character dying. But with everything else going according to Murphy’s Law.
I realize my first attempt at TL;DR was a bit of a failed analogy.
TLDR (Take 2): A realistic love story about the effects of extended family pressures on a young successful couple. It’s a sick and twisted romance that you’re not going to be able to put down for hours that will leave you shocked at the end. Read this book so that you can help me get my edges back and tell me how to feel about it!