“Everyone had done it, he supposed. To some degree, they had all told their little lies.” These are not the opening lines of Julie Iromuanya’s striking debut novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, but they may as well be. They are the thoughts of Job Ogbannaya, the protagonist. Job’s approach to lying reflects his pursuit of the American Dream. Like many others, he has come to America to “make it.” But Iromuanya’s book asks, what happens if you can’t make it? What happens if your new country swallows you whole and threatens to keep your dreams from coming to fruition? What then? Do you return to your native land? Do you simply work longer and harder? Or do you lie about not having made it and pretend everything is all right? Instead of doggedly pursuing his dreams of becoming a wealthy doctor, Job opts to pretend that he already is one, until his lies grow too big to untangle.
As a young man, Job Ogbannaya leaves his native Nigeria to attend university in Nebraska. Sent to fulfill his parents’ dream of becoming a doctor, instead he saves the tuition money to broker a marriage with an American woman in order to obtain citizenship. Most people will be familiar with “the green card scheme,” but what often goes unexplored in mainstream narratives is the aftermath of these fraudulent marriages. The rich intricacies of the fraudulent marriage, and the conflicts and tensions borne of selling citizenship through marriage, are too often ignored. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor wisely examines the nuances and ramifications of such marriages. What if the person you marry to obtain citizenship is unscrupulous and unpredictable? What if he or she refuses to go quietly into the night after the quickie divorce? What if that strategic marriage comes back to haunt you? How might it alter your future?
A few years after his marriage, Job, now established as an American citizen, experiences the need for companionship and decides to marry for real: “Although Job’s life had been bare in America, he had never convinced himself that what he felt was loneliness.” Opting for an arranged marriage, he returns to Nigeria to obtain a wife, Ifi, who “were it not for her arranged marriage with Job… would have been ‘an under-the-bridge girl’.” Surprised to discover her husband is not all she has been led to believe, Ifi reluctantly becomes complicit in her husband’s lies. Job and Ifi’s stubborn insistence on building their life on a foundation of lies warps their relationship, colors their interactions with their white and black American neighbors, and thwarts their attempts to achieve their dreams.
Unlike many stories and novels with immigrants as protagonists, Iromuanya’s novel does not have both feet firmly planted in American soil. And that’s a good thing. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor actually begins in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where Job and Ifi honeymoon after meeting for the first time during their arranged marriage. The ability or inability to be able to come and go back and forth between one’s mother land and one’s new adopted home becomes one of the tensions in the novel. Ifi’s inability to travel back to Nigeria for an important event causes a momentous occasion to be shadowed in shame and accusation.
In the same way that secrets in a Jane Austen novel act like calling cards to give characters entrée into certain social circles, lies function as social currency in Iromuanya’s novel, throwing unlikely characters together and binding them to one another in unexpected ways. But in Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, the revelation of secrets and the uncovering of lies are sometimes strangely missing or skimmed over, which seems odd, considering the importance of lies in the novel and the lengths to which Job, Ifi, and others all go in order to maintain and protect them.
In depicting a protagonist actively mired in self-deception, who deliberately and willfully distorts the truth, it would seem that Iromuanya has created an unsympathetic character. Saddling him with a wife who is in many ways equally duplicitous could be seen as comeuppance. But Job and Ifi deserve each other, and Job is not ultimately unsympathetic. His deception is relatively benign—he is not defrauding anyone, stealing anyone’s identity, or running international electronic banking scams. His insistence on fostering the lie that his life has become protects his pride and keeps him from becoming the butt of jokes: “He could not be Emeka’s joke to Gladys over dinner. He could not be the joke of his hometown in Nigeria. He could not be his mother’s pity and his father’s failure.”
Rather than marring her novel with moral didacticism and chastising Job and Ifi for their many lies, or making an effort to differentiate between the degrees of lying—little white lies versus big whoppers—Iromuanya focuses on the motivation for and the cost of deception. Job’s propensity to rewrite his life story to make himself come across as a shining hero, while keeping his friends, neighbors, and relatives in the dark about the nature of his true circumstances, reveals him to be guilty of very human weaknesses that we all share—the unwillingness to admit failure, and the desire to see ourselves reflected well in the eyes of others.