Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was sent to the library where I worked, and I took it home for review. This review was not requested by the publisher.
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at their summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ facades.
Then the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Desperate to keep Jende’s job, which grows more tenuous by the day, the Jongas try to protect the Edwardses from certain truths, even as their own marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
What I Liked
Behold the Dreamers is an expert examination of the highs and lows of immigrant life for a small family in New York. This is one of those rare books in which even the most despicable of the characters is hard to really dislike, because Mbue does such a magnificent job of creating characters with history and heart. The beauty of this book is that there is so much gray area that you must constantly revise your analysis of a situation or character, and that made the story feel wonderfully down to earth. As the characters rise and fall on the waves of the economic earthquake in 2008 in the US, I was forced to examine myself and my assumptions in a way that felt almost cleansing.
What I Didn’t Like
However, as much as I liked this book and the way it was written, it was pretty predictable. I knew what was going to happen almost right away, adn despite a few surprises, the plot of the book is certainly nothing new in the literary world. It may be a brilliant and endearing glimpse into the complexities of emigrating to the United States, but the predictability of it’s plot made it feel kind of pointless.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend that others read it, it’s probably not going to rock your world. For those who have trouble understanding or empathizing with the immigrant experience, with racism in the US today, or with class tensions, there’s a lot to gain from this book. I expect great things in the future from Mbue, but to me this book was just a bit underwhelming.
About the Author
Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City. BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is her first novel.