Ifemelu is a young woman from Nigeria living in the United States. The novel begins as she takes the train from Princeton, New Jersey, the posh university town where she has a fellowship as a writer, to Trenton, New Jersey, a nearby city that is much poorer, to get braids done before returning to Nigeria. As she sits in the salon, she reminisces and recounts pieces of her life in Nigeria as a child; her struggles with culture, language, money, and hair in the United States; and two relationships since emigrating that could never measure up to her first love with a young man named Obinze.
The story is told mainly through Ifemelu's thoughtful, critical narration and sometimes through posts from her blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” but the narration switches to Obinze's point of view for portions of the story to describe the difficulties he faced as an illegal worker in London and his quick rise to wealth upon returning to Nigeria.
When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after some delay due to a suicide attempt made by her beloved cousin Dike, she and Obinze must decide where their friendship and love stand. Though Obinze faces a tough decision due to having a wife and young daughter, in the end he chooses to pursue a relationship with Ifemelu no matter the cost.