- What: Behold the Dreamers
- Who: Imbolo Mbue
- Pages: 400, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2016
- The lit: of 5 flames
I don’t know if I’ve ever been disillusioned by the idea of the American Dream. I never really thought the U.S. of A was the absolute best place to live in the world and that, by being within its borders, my life had infinite possibilities. And the idea of buying a home with a picket fence — something often connected to the American Dream — surely has never been at the top of my priority list.
I have, though, been obsessed with finding that dream job. As a teenager and in college, I fully expected to work my ass off in my 20s in a dream industry to lead me to the ultimate dream job. My life would be fulfilled and have meaning. I’m no longer obsessed with this idea. Now, I fully believe in the dream of loving every second of your life and the very place you call home.
To me, the ideals of the American Dream and that of the dream job are very similar — the latter being the more-modern version of the former. And it’s these concepts that form Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, a story of immigrants who put their full hope and faith into the American system only to be crushed by its many injustices. It’s distressing and heartbreaking and will make you question the validity behind your values. Yeah. It’s a lot.
“Even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn’t they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of. That was what made New York so wonderful. It had a world for everyone.” — Behold the Dreamers
Jende Jonga immigrated to New York City from Cameroon three years ago with the hope that he could build a better life for his now-wife, Neni, and their son. But three years of living in the U.S. has meant sharing a tiny apartment with four other immigrants and then another shoebox with his family, working three dead-end jobs at a time, and with little to show for it. Then, he miraculously gets an interview with Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers who is looking for a chauffeur in 2007.
After lying about his immigration status, Jende gets the job and finds himself making more money than he ever thought possible, though still not enough to fully alleviate his concerns about paying for a nicer apartment, for Neni to finish school, and to assist family back in Cameroon. But they’re making ends meet for what feels like the first time, especially when Neni gets a job working for Mrs. Edwards at their Hamptons summer home. Finally, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.
That’s until Lehman and the subprime mortgage crisis rock the world in 2008 and lives are forever upended. Jende’s immigration status and belief in America enter a tailspin, and he must decide what’s best for his family. His experience demonstrates that our initial values lose legitimacy when the life we thought we wanted becomes increasingly out of our control and further from our reach.
“They would lose unquantifiable benefits by leaving New York City, because while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood that only New York City could offer a child.” — Behold the Dreamers
The best part about this book is how it covers a myriad of issues and their interconnectivity. Mbue covers race, class, immigration, money, marriage, family, and dreams all in one novel, and she pointedly expresses how they all coexist and exasperate one another. This point is intensified by placing the story at the beginning of the Great Recession.
For example, the novel explores how the financial crisis affected every type of person and how it affected people differently. The Jonga family and the Edwards family both feel the weight of the world in the months and years proceeding the fall of Lehman. Both marriages are tested, and the children in both families have to bear their parents’ burdens more than their parents know. Both families have to rethink their lives and what truly makes them happy.
“[The Edwards family] are dreamers, too, Mbue wants us to know, but they’re slipping into the nightmare of American extravagance,” writes Ron Charles of the Washington Post.
The Edwards fight to maintain their identity, while the Jongas fight for a home, food, and citizenship. It proves we share similarities and experiences even if we interact with and feel them differently.
Behold the Dreamers also illustrates the injustices of life, especially considering capitalism and the 1%, America, and the unfortunate xenophobia prevalent in today’s society. The Jongas and Edwards both face suffering after that fateful September day in 2008 when Lehman filed for bankruptcy. The Edwards have a longer descent to fall, but the Jongas have a more fragile and dire circumstance. For them, it’s not a question of losing a maid or a chauffeur because they can’t pay them; it’s a matter of how they will eat dinner. And Mbue confirms who will suffer the most in this unfortunate world.
Mixed with these desperate situations is an initial naïveté (not to mention an extreme kindness and politeness) that will break your heart from start to finish. Jende and Neni are smart people, which we never question as readers. But they’ve been fooled by this vision of America and its greatness, and this vision — which anyone can struggle to achieve — will most likely never be realized for people like them: non-white immigrants who don’t come from money.
There are your three strikes in America.
Their belief in this country’s system indirectly correlates to their chances of achieving their dreams, and slowly, over the course of the book, you see their perceptions change. Maybe the U.S. isn’t the beacon on the hill that it claims to be. Maybe true success doesn’t mean owning a home, making good money, and rubbing shoulders with important people. Isn’t success just a social construct anyways? Mbue crafts exquisite character development to teach us about the unexpected pitfalls of hope and the ugliness of reality.
“Indeed, bad news has a way of slithering into good days and making a mockery of complacent joys.” — Behold the Dreamers
If you think this sounds like a deep novel, it is. Mbue dives fearlessly into many topics and will make you question much about your life, the world, and our interactions with one another. But if you think her writing seems too extravagant or poetic or “deep,” think again.
“Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller, inflecting her own voice with the tenor of her characters’ thoughts and speech,” continues Charles. “She can enjoy the comedy of their naïveté without subjecting them to mockery.”
Mbue has written an incredible story that is accessible to everyone, which is good because we could all use a good dose of her storytelling. She brings us treacherous plots and themes that are happening all around us, and it’s time we open our eyes to them — especially, as Charles concludes, Donald Trump and the millions who follow him and his school of values. Talk about good timing, Imbolo Mbue.
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