Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  16,183 Ratings  ·  2,253 Reviews
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Behold the Dreamers
by Imbolo Mbue
A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy

Named one of BuzzFeed’s “Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer”

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.


America was passing her by. New York City was passing her by. Bridges and billboards bearing smiling people were passing her by. Skyscrapers and brownstones were rushing by. Fast. Too fast. Forever.

4 stars. Ah, this book was a pleasant surprise. I picked Behold the Dreamers for my September Book of the Month read, mostly because none of the others appealed to me. I hadn't any previous plans to read it but, as it happens, it turned out to be an enjoyable read. Full of sadness, hope and - of course - dreamers.

It's quite an understated book for the most part. Quiet and character-driven. Set just after the economic crisis of 2007/2008, we see the American Dream from two different perspectives - that of Jende Jonga and his family, Cameroonian immigrants desperately trying to obtain a green card and stay in America, and that of the Edwards family, wealthy upper-class New Yorkers who show the cracks in this idea of paradise held by immigrants.

The theme is an old one - the fragility of the American Dream - and yet this Cameroonian family breathe new life into it. The author herself is a Cameroonian immigrant living in the United States, and so is able to weave the Jonga family with firsthand insight and honesty; the result being characters that come to life on the page and make you remember them.

There's an undercurrent of sadness to the whole book. Jende is such a wide-eyed, hopeful dreamer who longs to bring his wife and son to a place he considers a land of opportunity. At a time when animosity towards immigrants has been fostered by the likes of Donald Trump, this book really strikes a chord. The Jonga family are distinctly West-African in their ideals and cultural practices, and yet their desire to give their son the best life possible is a heartbreakingly universal one.

All of the characters are treated with such love and care by the author. Members of both the Jonga and Edwards families are multi-layered and sensitively portrayed. Cultural differences and issues of privilege are explored - for example, the Edwards' oldest son is anti-establishment and longs to abandon law school and head to India, whereas Jende believes the opportunity to become a lawyer is one of the greatest things he could give his son.

It's a painfully realistic book, as all good books about the "American Dream" tend to be. Sometimes I wanted a bit more from it - a lot of the story and themes of race/culture are revealed through conversations and the plot itself is very... simple. Though perhaps that is a strength too.

This novel resonates with contemporary social and political issues dominating in the US, Europe and Australia, where there is a growing and visceral tide of hatred and rage against immigrants. 
Imbolo Mbue has written an illuminating book on the immigrant experience amidst the hollowness of the American dream set in New York. The story is told from the perspectives of Jende Jongo, and his wife, Nemi, who are from Cameroon dreaming of a better future in their new home. They have a son, Liomi, for whom they have high hopes. The stage is set for an exploration of their precarious lives buffeted by economic and social forces beyond their control as the 2008 financial collapse is described in terms of its human cost.

Jende is working as a cabbie when he lands the dream job of chauffeur to Lehman's executive, Clark Edward, who demands Jende keeps his secrets and give him his absolute loyalty. The two men become close and Clark's wife, Cindy, gives his wife, Nemi, a job as a housekeeper. Cindy confides her thoughts and secrets to Nemi who is hard working and hoping to become a pharmacist. We are given an in depth insight into the laborious and costly process of trying to acquire a green card. The spectacular collapse of Lehman has enormous repercussions on the Edward family. Clark loses his job and the strain on his marriage results in its collapse. Jende and Nemi find themselves with divided loyalties and caught up in the slipstream of these events, and there is a simultaneous similarity as their future comes under threat. We observe the contrasts between a family of privilege and a family with little and the power dynamic in the relationship between the two. We see the yearnings for home, Cameroon, whilst trying to fit into a new home, the eternal immigrant heart caught between two worlds.

The novel perhaps underscores the naivete of the dreams of the immigrant given the harsh reality of the world. Mbue touches on the issues of race, culture, violence, pain, and the impact of male decisionmaking on women. The writing is beautiful at times although the characters and plot feel a little uneven on occasion. However, this takes nothing away from a novel that is a timely and pertinent story that carries an authentic picture of an immigrant experience. The characters of Jende and Nemi are complex and captured my interest easily. I loved the portrayal of their home country and their connections with it. A wonderful and insightful book that I recommend highly.

Sometimes, a novel arrives at just the right moment.

Here we are in a crater of xenophobia. One of our presidential candidates is foaming at the mouth about “extreme vetting” for immigrants. But then along comes “Behold the Dreamers,” a debut novel by a young woman from Cameroon that illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse. While another author might have played that imperative title sarcastically, for Imbolo Mbue, “Behold the Dreamers” is a kind of angelic annunciation of hope, which ultimately makes her story even more poignant.

After a childhood of extreme poverty, Mbue came to this country in 1998 — recent enough to retain the optimism of an immigrant but long enough to understand our national schizophrenia about foreigners. Her novel is about a family from Cameroon living in Harlem on the eve of striking disruption. The United States is about to elect its first black president and descend into the Great Recession. But Jende Jonga, the hero of this tale, has his mind set on only one thing: becoming a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a hotshot Lehman Brothers executive. Jende and his wife, Neni, have been preparing for the interview for days. They’ve spent hours googling “the one question they ask at every job interview.” With the help of a volunteer at the library, they’ve written up a résumé that describes Jende as “a man of grand accomplishments”: farmer, street cleaner. . . .

3.5 I went back and forth, trying to decide whether or not I liked any of these characters, except form the young children of course who were victims of circumstances they could not control. 
Was pretty sure I liked Jende for most of the book until he did something I abhorred. Nein too does something, out of desperation, but I did not much like her for it. The Edwards, Cindy and Clark were pretty much representative of the privileged culture, or at least how they are usually portrayed. I did eventually sympathize with them all for various reasons and in the end that didn't matter to me so much as the story.

If it shows nothing else it definitely showed the disconnect between immigrants, the privileged and even those who were born here. So a worthy and timely read, especially here in the USA where one of our presidential nominees is running on a platform of fear, hatred and bigotry. This book shows how tenuous the hold on their lives are for some. Lawyer fees, trying to get papers to stay in this country, work toward a better for themselves and their families. The author set this just before the collapse of our economy in 2008 and in fact Clark Edward works for Lehman Brothers as an executive, as he loses his job, his marriage disintegrates as does the future of Jende's family. Jobs are now scarce, college educated people willing to take the jobs the immigrants once occupied. So many lost their houses and their livelihoods.

I enjoyed reading about the difference in their lives between New York, living in Harlem and Cameroon, where they are from. The ending surprised me somewhat, well I didn't expect the direction it took. But, for this family it made sense. This novel is not perfect and like most probably doesn't reflect all but it does give the reader an inside view of one such immigrant family. A well told and thought out story, this the author's first.

4.5 Stars

Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers” takes a look at the immigrant dream of life in the United States, with promises of bigger, better than wherever you came from. Undoubtedly, there can be truth to that, but what happens to that dream when it seems elusive, out of reach or comes undone?

I was hooked right from the start by the story of Jende Jongo, formerly of Limbe, Cameroon, finding a dream job as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman Brothers, in the year 2007. He’s been driving a cab in NYC, but better pay and a better car to drive are not the only thing that makes this job such a break, by driving a Lehman Brothers executive Jende feels he has achieved a point of pride in his work.

There’s humor in Mbue’s writing about the everyday life in America, the thought process of the shopping experience in America, coming from an environment where negotiating prices is the norm. There are also the astonishments of the new immigrants experience with the availability of so much in one place, and the availability of the “finer” places to shop for clothing. There’s also a heavy dose of the reality how many difficulties may be encountered by those who come looking for a better life in America.

As Dorothy comes to realize, “there’s no place like home” when she’s in Oz, but then back at Auntie Em’s she dreams of life in Oz … A heart divided. Jende’ heart is at odds between the things he has come to love about this new life, the things he misses about life in Limbe, his family there. Neni can’t bear to think of leaving everything they’ve worked for.

Charming, truly compelling story, “Behold the Dreamers” is a wonderful debut novel about where we sometimes choose to call home.

It genuinely surprises me that so many of my friends here seem to have been rather lukewarm on this book, because Behold the Dreamers was a thoroughly engrossing, powerful, emotional experience for me.

This is the story of a family who has emigrated from Cameroon. Jende and Neni Jonga, along with their young son, come to New York in 2007 in search of the American Dream. She enrolls in college, with the expectation that she can eventually become a pharmacist; he secures a job as the chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. This position gives him a unique view of the Edwards family, themselves a very fractured take on the American Dream. Lehman brothers is teetering on the brink, and the stress is weighing heavily not just on Clark but also on his wife Cindy and their two sons: would-be hippie twentysomething Vince and wide-eyed nine-year-old Mighty. Jende is privy to much of that stress and he has to try to keep it from reaching into his own family, whose status in this country is far from certain.

Imbolo Mbue tells her story from the perspectives of both Jende and Neni, though it’s not a strictly “alternating POV” kind of book. Mbue captures these two voices brilliantly, illustrating the hope and the fear, the idealism and the naiveté that comes with being an immigrant in America at the outset of the Great Recession. I was so completely invested in these two that my heart was in my throat for much of the book. The Edwards family sometimes feel like a bit of a clichéd portrayal of upper class white privilege, but it still seems clear that Mbue holds a lot of empathy for them

Though it’s set in the last decade, this book holds quite a bit of pertinence in 2016. Immigration remains a huge topic in the US right now, and there’s huge swathes of xenophobia all over our country. Knowing how hard it is to start a new life in America, it’s sometimes hard for me to imagine why someone might want to—especially people of color. Mbue offers a reminder that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, highlighting the sacrifices and the impossible, often desperate, decisions that immigrants are faced with. Mbue really forced me to walk around in the shoes of her characters and think about what it must be like to be in their position. It was a really intense experience for me; I got to the last fifty pages and I couldn’t stop sobbing. So maybe I’m alone here, but I absolutely adored this book.

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