20 Under 40: A Comprehensive (Subjective) Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Birdsong,” September 20:

Adichie is not a writer I had ever heard of, but this ended up being one of my very favorite stories in the series. It’s about a young woman in Nigeria that has an affair with an older, married man. That sounds like a tired plot but the woman’s perspective is so furious and observant that it’s absolutely riveting. She knows her place as a mistress, knows he will not leave his wife, and is realistic about what to expect, but that doesn’t keep her from feeling hurt, used, and outraged.

A perfect detail: the man tells her that roosters do not have penises, but mate another way, and when this surprises her he asks, “Did you ever see a cock with a dick?” This story organically becomes a shared joke between them, leading to an endearment term: CwithaD. He signs all of his text messages to her that way. And then, out to dinner one night, he goes to the bathroom, she checks his phone, and learns that he signs his texts to his wife the same way. It’s shocking. “Inside me, something sagged,” says the narrator, which is a perfect word choice (“sagged”) by Adichie. “Had he choreographed a conversation with her, nimbly made the joke about a ‘cock with a dick’ and then found a way to turn into a shared endearment for the two of them? I thought of the effort it would take to do that.”

Adichie’s also clever to have her narrator tell the entire story of the affair as she is sitting at a red light, staring at a woman in the car next to her, who is staring back at her. She imagines that this woman could be the wife of her secret lover, since she has never met or seen his wife. When she finally finishes telling us the story of the affair, and of how it ended, she is enraged enough to roll down her window and yell to the woman in the other car: “What is your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?” But she only embarrasses herself, and the woman drives off “with the slightest of smiles on her face.” A great ending.

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