Book Club: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

beholdthedreamersAbout Behold the Dreamers

• Book Club: January 2017 
• Hardcover: 
380 pages
• Audio: 12 Hours
• Published: November 2016 by Fiewel & Friends
• Source: Purchased (Scribd Audiobooks)

Goodreads DescriptionFor fans of Americanah and The Lowland comes a debut novel about an immigrant couple striving to get ahead as the Great Recession hits home. With profound empathy, keen insight, and sly wit, Imbolo Mbue has written a compulsively readable story about marriage, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American dream.
 
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 the Edwardses’ 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’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

My Thoughts

I’ll admit, I wasn’t super excited when the Book Club girls picked Behold the Dreamers. I’ve struggled with similar books, and truth be told, immigrant fiction isn’t really my genre. But I’m always open to trying a book, and since this one got such good praise, I figured I’d give it a go.

Behold the Dreamers tells the stories of the Jonga family (Jende and Neni) and the Edwards family (Clark and Cindy). It’s set in 2007-2008, right as President Obama is elected and Lehman Brothers collapses. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants trying to make a life in America; Clark and Cindy are wealthy New Yorkers trying to pretend their marriage isn’t falling apart. Clark hires Jende to be his chauffeur, and the two families’ lives intersect. The story focuses more on the Jongas, though quite a bit of time is also spent on the Edwards.

Throughout the book, we watch Jende struggle with the US immigration system as he seeks asylum. His lawyer is questionable, and the process confusing. The challenges Jende faces as a non-American are humbling, as is his fear that he’ll be forced to leave his family. It really put things into perspective about the “American Dream” – and just how much we take for granted sometimes.

I chose to listen to the audio book because I’ve realized it’s easier to get through dense or difficult books if I’m listening to them. I’m so glad I did. Prentice Onayemi does a fantastic job narrating. I swear, I could listen to him all day. He brings each character to life so beautifully. I simply don’t have the words to do his narration justice.

I really enjoyed Behold the Dreamers, until the last third or so. I didn’t finish the book before our book club meeting, so I got a few “spoilers” that night. I was somewhat prepared for those spoilers when I got to them, and I wonder how I’d have felt if I hadn’t been. The first half of the book is fairly steady. It’s more of a character story than anything else. You’re experiencing life alongside the Jongas, the ins and outs of building a life in America. And then all of a sudden, the financial crisis happens, and the life they’ve built starts crumbling. And the characters crumble. It’s messy and sudden. I felt like these people I’d gotten to know for 12 hours had just been rewritten…and that bothered me.

Book Club Discussion

For the most part, the Book Club agreed that this wasn’t the best example of immigrant fiction. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the book, but overall the girls felt other writers have done a better job with the genre. Most of the girls felt the same way I did, that the characters’ actions in the last third of the book were out of sync with how they’d been portrayed in the earlier chapters. We talked about how we’d wished there were more cultural descriptions in the story, and about how we’d have liked to have known more about the motivations behind some of the choices the characters made. Overall, while we didn’t dislike the book, we wanted more depth.

2 comments

  1. Grabbing that American dream is difficult. It’s not a guarantee of happiness, but a promise that you’ll get choices. It’s always interesting to read how that works out in real life. I enjoyed your honest review.

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