The Fabulous Canadian Cottages of Rich Americans
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009)
The title story in this collection is about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, moves into her uncle’s house, leaves her uncle’s house after he attempts to coerce her into sex, and then works as a waitress while trying to put herself through school. While waitressing, she meets and begins an affair with a handsome young American (his eyes are the colour of extra virgin olive oil) who comes from a wealthy family. The story is written in the second person singular, a technique that I find often struggles to shake the aura of the writing workshop assignment; so, in the following passage, “you” is the main character, “he” is the boyfriend, and “they/them” are the boyfriend’s parents:
You were angrier when he told you he had refused to go up to Canada with them for a week or two, to their summer cottage in the Quebec countryside. They had even asked him to bring you. He showed you pictures of the cottage and you wondered why it was called a cottage because the buildings that big around your neighbourhood back home were banks and churches. You dropped a glass and it shattered on the hardwood of his apartment floor and he asked what was wrong and you said nothing, although you thought a lot was wrong. Later, in the shower, you started to cry. You watched the water dilute your tears and you didn’t know why you were crying. (126)
Maybe you were crying because you weren’t going to get to visit his fabulous cottage in Canada?
Cottaging is such a quintessentially Canadian activity that it’s a bit of a surprise we haven’t come across it before, though we have taken note of its close cousin, camping, through Sylvia Plath and Roberto Bolano. But here it is at last.
This is an intriguing passage because it contains two quite different views of Canada. The first to emerge is a very “American” way of looking at us: Canada as an idyllic land (“Quebec countryside”) where rich Americans can buy cottages that let them escape from the stress of their hectic lives. This idea of Canada seems to belong not so much to the narrator herself, but rather to be an expression of what Canada means to her boyfriend’s family.
But then he shows her a picture of the cottage, and the narrator’s own point of view comes through in her comparison of its size to that of churches and banks in Nigeria (“back home”). In quick succession, Canada has been contrasted with two very different countries, to different effect: first with the United States, which makes us seem like a wilderness playground; then with Nigeria, which makes us seem like an obscenely wealthy nation where the cottages are bigger than Nigerian banks.
The choice of a bank for the comparison is significant, as it tightens the focus on wealth, which is central to the story. We are reminded that, relative to most of the world, Canada is a wealthy country, where private cottages can be the size of public buildings in other places. We are also reminded that the family of the narrator’s boyfriend is rich enough to afford, not just a home, but a cottage, that would easily dwarf any home she might have known in Nigeria. The Canadian cottage becomes, not just a marker of wealth, like the hardwood floor, but a marker of a kind of excess – of having more than anyone really needs.
The reference to the cottage is a small moment in the story, but it plays a key role, sharpening the distinction between the life the narrator has left behind and the world of her boyfriend, which she is moving into. A cottage in Quebec – a cottage the size of a Nigerian bank – is just one of the many things rich Americans possess, and its presence reaffirms the financial and cultural gulf that separates the lovers.
In case you were wondering how things turned out for you, in the end you went back to Nigeria, parting somewhat ambiguously from your rich American boyfriend after he drove you to the airport.