The back cover of this book will give readers the most bare-bone details of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor; that Job and Ifi are a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage, that Job, “Mr. Doctor,” isn’t actually a doctor, and that this lie puts a strain on their marriage and their life at large. But Julie Iromuanya’s novel is about more than a struggle to keep up appearances. It delves into the nitty gritty details of a culture, a marriage, two people unto themselves, displaced in a strange land that is famed to provide opportunity and riches. From the very first pages, it is painfully clear that this life is not what either Job or Ifi had pictured for themselves.
Superficially, yes, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is centered on Job’s complete obsession with appearing successful to anyone who might take notice. It is this lie that starts the entire book, and in all the years we are privy to of his and Ifi’s life together, it never abates in the least. This need to be “the Big Man” controls his every action. Most of his thoughts dwell on what others think of him and how ashamed he is of his “lowly” position as a nurse’s aide. This is an area in which I’m torn between wishing some of those thoughts had been deleted from the book, and accepting their repetitions as necessary to show just how obsessed Job is. At times it falls just short of beating a dead horse, and other times it seems that Job actually has a fixation problem. It really depends on how you choose to read it; in either case, it was deeply seeded in my mind as I progressed through the book.
Every night, Job leaves his ramshackle apartment in a lab coat to try and fool Ifi into thinking he is a doctor. But he has been lying to his friends, also originally from Nigeria, for years. I adore this is element. Because Job has been in America long enough to have these old friends, to fail out of school and then find a job in the medical field, I have the sense that the story began before page one, and what is on paper is just a section. It feels elaborate, meaty, complex. This show he puts on for Ifi is a small adjustment to an already existing life-long lie. What’s even more wonderful is that Ifi is no silly housewife. She knows from the instant she puts her bags down in his apartment that he is no doctor. But now that she is his wife, she cannot “out” him to anyone. Doing so would embarrass both of them. She goes so far as to make up her own lies about a big house and expensive furniture in her letters to her Aunty back in Nigeria.
From the way Job and Ifi describe their dealings with each other, this unity is common practice where they come from—the two people in an arranged marriage, absent of love, are ultimately a team, no matter how they feel about one another. This is also part of why I like that the principal characters are not American. It’s refreshing to read about an unfamiliar marital dynamic while having that difference take place in America, the perfect balance between recognizable and not. Though Job is desperately trying to live an American lifestyle, the culture he knows still permeates his life. Job chose to marry a woman from Nigeria for a reason. He even says he was lonely, but he didn’t have to spare the effort to marry a Nigerian if that was all he needed. He missed some aspect of his life, and so “bought” a woman from Nigeria (again, seemingly a common practice) to help him maintain some semblance of his culture. I love this part of the book, because it demonstrates that though he professes America to be this wonderful place to build a perfect life, he is not perfectly at home.
My last favorite element: love and the arranged marriage. When Job and Ifi meet for the first time on the night of their honeymoon, both are greatly displeased with each other. There is one small spark of something toward the end of the night (you might call it hope). From the start, their whole marriage is rocky at best. It takes a great deal of time for even small feelings of affection to grow between them. Their time together strangely morphs those feelings into something not quite love, but rather equal parts respect, hate, gratitude, and empathy. Between these 292 pages, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor tells a wonderfully intricate, honest story of two strangers-turned-partners surviving the 21st century American Dream.