The protagonist in the contemporary novel ''Americanah'' flees a military dictatorship in her home country of Nigeria to attend college in the U.S., while her high school love emigrates to England as an undocumented resident. Their struggles in their adopted countries, and what sort of people they are when they return to Africa, are compellingly detailed by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A committee of 19 Duke University students, faculty and staff selected ''Americanah'' as the summer reading book for incoming students. Committee members said the story, as well as the author's fresh take on race, identity, class and immigration in the 21st century, should captivate the members of Duke's Class of 2018.
"Adichie's prose is gripping, making for one page-turning account of the international student's college experience -- their ups, their downs," said Jillian Williams, a Duke senior who served on the committee.
Though the focus is on blacks and whites, the story also can resonate with anyone who goes far away to school and returns home a changed person. "Americanah" is slang for a Nigerian who went to live in America and acts superior when he or she returns to Africa.
The novel was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review and was the winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Small group discussions will be part of the week-long orientation activities in August, and will represent the class' first shared intellectual experience, said Jordan Hale, director of New Student Programs and the committee's co-chair. Plans are being finalized to have the author come speak early in the fall semester.
Hale's co-chair Simon Partner, a professor of Japanese history, praised the book for encompassing some of the most important challenges facing "thinking people in today's world" and said he's looking forward to hearing from the author.
"She paints a brilliant picture of three very different societies -- Nigeria, Britain and the U.S. -- and brings them into conversation around these issues," Partner said.
The committee received more than 600 recommendations and considered 400 unique titles. Some suggestions came from the students accepted early in Duke’s Class of 2018.
The four runners-up were:
-- "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by Ben Fountain
--"The Dinner" by Herman Koch
-- "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma
-- "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers
Some prior choices for Duke's summer reading program, which started in 2002, included "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann; ''A State of Wonder,'' by Ann Patchett; ''Eating Animals,'' by Jonathan Safran Foer; and ''The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,'' by Junot Diaz.
Duke will mail a special edition of the summer reading book to incoming first-year students in early July.