Ever since it came out and I started seeing it in book stores, I knew I wanted to read Behold the Dreamers, the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue. But for whatever reason, it never felt like the right time, so it stayed on my to-buy list. Last fall, I discovered it was offered by Book of the Month, and I decided to finally get it. Now, five years after it was first released, it felt like the perfect time to dive in.
It’s fall 2007 when Behold the Dreamers starts. Jende Jonga, his wife Neni, and their young son Liomi are Cameroonian immigrants trying to make it in New York City. They’re in the midst of a long battle with the American immigration system, but at least Jende has a worker’s permit. He ends up getting a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a man working in an upper level position at Lehman Brothers. Later, Neni will also work for the Edwardses, cleaning and serving food to Cindy Edwards and her youngest son, Mighty.
Through the perspective of Jende and Neni, we get an intimate look at two wildly different families in the months before and after the monumental 2008 financial crash. What kinds of stresses were the wealthy Edwardses under? How did the crash irrevocably change their family? And what about the Jongas: How would they be impacted as employees to those on top? What would limited resources and a cruel immigration system lead to for their fragile family?
From the first page, Behold the Dreamers is a captivating novel. Even though it’s her literary debut, Imbolo Mbue already has such a stunning writing style. It’s gentle, almost dreamy, yet also sparse and exact. Right away, I felt that I was in for an impactful story.
Each of the main characters is likable in their own way, and I couldn’t help but root for them all. We get to see their good sides first, and the author does an excellent job of painting them in a sympathetic light. Even as that facade unravels and we start to see their flaws underneath, we still want things to work out well for them. For example, Cindy may seem like a shallow and narcissistic rich housewife, but she’s also generous and warm-hearted, and her backstory pulls at the heartstrings.
The Jongas and the Edwardses each seem to have bought into the pervasive idea of the American Dream. Clark and Cindy have climbed to the top and seem to have made it, but are either of them truly happy? Meanwhile, Jende and Neni come from Cameroon, a country with few options for those who are born poor. Both believe that in America, anything is possible. Being in New York City feels like a dream for them, a land of opportunity that will grant them a beautiful future. But what happens when that dream crumbles into a nightmare? As Behold the Dreamers demonstrates, the American Dream is, in many ways, just a myth. It’s a sad truth, and it has major consequences for the two families here.
As much as I felt for the four main characters, I hoped they’d prevail in the face of numerous setbacks. But as the story progresses, everything becomes so complicated and difficult. The hurdles seem insurmountable. Perhaps saddest for me is seeing how the financial crash and surrounding issues impact our characters. Good qualities give way to new, or previously hidden, unlikeable traits and actions. The characters aren’t always so likable anymore, instead reduced to survival mode and the deep frustrations it can provoke.
Although I truly enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book, the last several chapters of Behold the Dreamers didn’t quite do it for me. It’s not so much that I didn’t like where the plot was going; rather, it just started to feel disconnected from where the story began. It’s a realistic ending that can be seen as bittersweet, yet it’s not the ending I’d have hoped for.
Despite the final third of the book, though, I still enjoyed Behold the Dreamers. It’s an important story that offers a look at two completely different families: poor immigrants vs. wealthy citizens, a couple in need of more money vs. a couple in need of more love. It’s interesting to see the Edwardses purely through the lens of the Jongas, and it offers a unique perspective on American culture and the 2008 recession.
Behold the Dreamers is a powerful and realistic story that will capture your heart. Imbolo Mbue is a gifted writer, and I can’t wait to read her next book, How Beautiful We Were, out next month. Throughout this book, I kept thinking that I’d love to read a novel set in her native Cameroon; although her new book doesn’t specify what country it’s in, it is set in western Africa, and I’m sure it will offer a unique and stirring story. Stay tuned for my review of that in the coming months.
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