Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga believes in the American Dream. A Cameroonian immigrant, he came to the U.S. to make a better life for himself, and he dreamed of providing opportunity for his wife, Neni, and their young son, Liomi, who eventually are able to join him in an apartment in Harlem. Neni pursues education to become a pharmacist, while Jende drives a cab and hopes for a better opportunity.

Good fortune presents itself in the fall of 2007, when Jende lands a job as the chauffeur of a senior executive with Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards. Clark and Jende build a solid relationship based on mutual respect and trust, as Jende assures Clark he will turn a blind eye (and ear) to the conversations Clark has while in the car, the people with whom Clark meets, and the places Jende takes him. Over time, Clark becomes a fixture in the Edwards family, driving Clark's mercurial wife, Cindy, as well as the couple's two sons, hippie idealist Vince, who wants to denounce all his father has worked for, and young Mighty, who is fascinated by Jende and Neni's culture. Cindy even offers Neni a temporary job as a housekeeper at the Edwards' house in the Hamptons.

But as the financial crisis looms, and the pressures of working for Lehman Brothers begin taking their toll on Clark, the Edwards' marriage begins to crack under the stress, placing Neni and Jende squarely in the middle, testing both of their loyalties. Meanwhile, problems with Jende's immigration status cause more problems for the couple, straining their own marriage, as each tries to pursue their own solutions. When the Great Recession hits, it does more than cause the downfall of Lehman Brothers and a nationwide economic collapse: it throws the very idea of the American Dream into jeopardy for Jende and Neni.

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers is a look at the immigrant experience through the eyes of a married couple, who have similar and different desires, and different solutions to their problems. This is a book about whether to fight for what you want and believe, or whether it is wiser to capitulate to forces larger and stronger than you, and how to overcome your problems. It's also the story of how people who have always seemed different suddenly find themselves falling into traditional (and not always welcomed) roles expected from their culture.

I thought this was an interesting book, as it helped you understand why so many people want to leave their countries and come to America. It's both the myth of a world of opportunity, as well as the chance to prove your worth to those in your country, that beckons many to the U.S., but it is far from the perfect world so many immigrants envision. And it is a look through immigrants' eyes at the lives of those they think have everything, and notice that their problems are eerily similar in many ways.

Mbue did a great job capturing the voice of Jende and Neni, and portraying their experiences and challenges. I felt as if that could be the entire story, without the drama surrounding the Edwards family, which seemed much more routine and stereotypical. And while I know what significant financial and emotional stress can do to a marriage, I really didn't like the way that Neni and Jende's characters transformed as things started going downhill for them.

This is definitely a heartfelt book, about the need to feel that you're providing for your family, and the need to feel stable, and feel loved and appreciated. I felt it dragged a little at times, but Mbue is a talented writer with an ear for dialogue, and a promising future ahead of her.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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