Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo was the Storytime with Squibbles Book Club pick for October and it was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize. It was also a fascinating story that made me think, which means you get a book review that is spoiler free and then we’ll move into a discussion section because I have so many things to think through.
Stay With Me examines themes of infertility, motherhood, love, and marriage. In essence, Yejide and Akin married with the expectation that they would be married only to each other, even though at the time, in their part of Nigeria, polygamous marriages were much more common. The problem with their plan arises when the two have been married for a few years and Yejide is still not pregnant. Yejide has tried everything, it seems, to get pregnant and the pressure she feels only intensifies when Akin is pressured into marrying Fumni (I think this is how you spell her name, but am not positive because I listened to the audiobook and saw it spelled three different ways…).
Before I talk more about the book, I want to discuss the experience of listening to this novel on audiobook. The narrator is Adjoa Andoh and I thought she did an amazing job. Andoh is a British actress, but she uses, what I assume is meant to be a Nigerian accent as she narrates. I’m not good with accents, for the record, so it took me probably a chapter to get a feel for the accent so that I was understanding everything that was happening. (This is entirely on me. I struggle with accents I don’t hear every day and often accents that I do hear regularly. It’s an issue, I’m working on it.)
Anyway, the first time Andoh’s voice changed at the beginning of a chapter, I was a little confused. It wasn’t a super big change, her voice just deepened slightly. It took me about a minute to realize that we were now hearing the story from Akin’s point of view. It turns out that people who read the book in physical or ebook form, struggled with those transitions, which was fun for some of them and annoying for others. I think that having the narration is super helpful in that because I didn’t really have to struggle to understand those switches in points of view.
General Book Thoughts – Still Non-Spoiler
This book challenged me in many ways, in that I kept trying to untangle my knee jerk cultural reactions to really understand the story as it was written without overwriting my own American sensibilities onto the book. Nowhere was this more difficult for me than with Yejide’s mother-in-law. Ultimately, I decided it was totally fine that I disliked her, though I won’t tell you why. This leads me to this point: Adebayo writes characters so incredibly well. Each character, with the exception of Funmi (which I think was purposeful), felt three dimensional. No one was perfect and, in fact, their flaws were rather large. Even though I was cheering for Yejide the entire time, when she and Akin were at odds, especially toward the end, I felt so torn because I understood where both of them were coming from. I think that’s a sign of Adebayo’s impressive writing.
The book also weaves in, alongside the character development and their struggles with infertility, all the political changes that Nigeria was experiencing in the 80s. I know virtually nothing about Nigerian history, but the book carefully weaves in these details of various uprisings and riots throughout the novel, which I think made the sense of place that much more powerful.
There’s so much about this book that makes it an excellent literary fiction read, that even though I gave it a 4.5 stars because I wanted more at the end, I can’t imagine how someone who loves literary fiction could not adore this book. And really, any book that explores womanhood and how toxic masculinity can be is a win in my book, especially when it allows me to learn more about another culture.
Alright, now here is where I leave those of you who just wanted the non-spoiler section! I hope you read this book and let me know what you think, if so!
Yejide starts out so sympathetic and then as the book moves along Akin, who started out being irritating and problematic (stand up to your mother!), starts to develop into his own full fledged person with reasons for the things he does. And then you find out that the man manipulated the situation with his brother and Yejide to get Yejide pregnant. And, as if that’s not enough, doesn’t bother to tell them that, “Hey, you know, maybe you shouldn’t do that because you’re both carriers for sickle cell disease.” I was unbelievably frustrated with Akin in this part, and yet still couldn’t help but sympathize with him!
And I was really frustrated with Yejide for sleeping with Dotun anyway. Your husband’s brother? Really? It just felt so cold. In Joce’s Instagram livestream on November 1st, we had a mini-discussion about how Yejide cheating on Akin doesn’t really have any sort of explanation. I think we offered three or four different potential reasons. I felt like it was most likely because of how frustrated Yejide was with Akin about Funmi, but… Maybe not? I wish this had been more developed.
I do want to address this point because I felt like the effects of toxic masculinity could have been addressed a little more overtly and then I realized that maybe that wasn’t necessary. The pressure Akin faced, even when they went unexpressed, to be a man were apparent in his actions and his actions drove the story in many ways.
To me, the most problematic and under explored effect of toxic masculinity was the pressure he felt surrounding getting Yejide pregnant. He knew that he was the problem because he literally could not get an erection. And yet, he lies. Or he omits and he allows Yejide to have all of these really awful and unnecessary experiences because he won’t confess to her that it is his fault they cannot have a child. And the worst part was his refusal to stand up to his mother, presumably because he could not figure out a way to do so without shaming himself, because a significant fact of hegemonic masculinity is the emphasis it places on male genitalia and one’s ability to use it in a penetrative manner. All of this leads to… Well, everything that happens really. In order to keep his inability to get an erection a secret and to “save Yejide from herself”, he created his plan to have Dotun sleep with Yejide to get her pregnant.
The part that I thought better deconstructed masculinity was when Akin was talking to the doctor, who was explaining to him that he wasn’t Sesan’s biological father, and then being told or feeling like he needed to act like a man. Akin’s first reaction was OH, OH, I’m supposed to be angry, that’s what’s expected of me here. And then he proceeds to do this very performative expression of anger. This was such a… sort of sad way to have to respond to that. Akin needed to worry about Sesan in that moment, but felt that he needed to showcase anger to conform to expectations.
So, while I did initially feel as though there could have been more, I then decided that maybe there was enough, but now I’m back to wishing there had been a little more deconstruction happening. I did tell you this book made me think and this is what happens when I start over-thinking a book!
THAT ENDING THOUGH
I was so, so worried that it was going to end with Rotimi being still alive within moments of Yejide deciding that was it and she was leaving. I know that I like endings that are just pure happiness–romance is my favorite genre for a reason–but I still felt like this ending, though hopeful, was incomplete. I need to know more. What happens next? Do Yejide and Rotimi wind up having a great relationship? Can they work through their issues? Rotimi seems remarkably well adjusted, but I can’t imagine that at some point she won’t feel some bitterness that Yejide wasn’t around for so long. Or that Yejide won’t have issues with Akin for not finding her sooner.
And what happens between Yejide and Akin? Despite all of the things that went down, I cannot help but want the two of them to work things out and I feel like a terrible person for saying that. I don’t think I could forgive Akin if he had done those things to me, but knowing why he did what he did… I just find him sympathetic.
But he murdered Funmi? Or maybe he didn’t? Maybe it was an accident?
SO MANY QUESTIONS.
Yeah, so if you’ve read this book and would like to leave thoughts below, please, please do so!
How do you feel about books that have endings that are super open and not neatly tied up like this one? Is that something you like? Let me know in the comments!