“In America today, having documents is not enough. Look at how many people with papers are struggling. Look at how even some Americans are suffering. They were born in this country.”
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, sifts through all we have swept under the rug of the American dream. A New York Times bestseller and winner of multiple awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Blue Metropolis Words to Change Award, the novel explores themes of race, class, power and privilege from the perspectives of two very different families.
Jende Jonga, a hopeful immigrant from Cameroon, is determined to become a personal chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. For days, he and his wife, Neni, prepare for the interview, polishing Jende’s resume, googling interview questions and practicing the best possible answers. On the day of the interview, Jende dresses in his best suit and clip-on tie. If it goes well, this interview could change his life.
In contrast, the meeting with Jende is just a minor inconvenience in Clark Edwards’ busy day. He asked friends for recommendations, which is how Jende got the interview, but otherwise has not bothered to prepare or even to review the resume in front of him. And regardless of the outcome, Clark has another interview scheduled the next day.
Ultimately, Jende is hired. While the hours are long, the salary is a substantial increase from what he made as a taxi driver and he and Neni are excited about their future.
As a chauffeur in the age of cellular phones, Jende comes to know the Edwards family intimately. On the surface, they are living the American dream. Clark and Cindy Edwards, both of whom come from relatively modest families, are now part of New York society. They attend garden parties, plan extravagant vacations and have a second home in the Hamptons.
But not all is as it seems.
Determined to save the firm from imminent collapse, Clark escapes into his demanding work schedule and high-end call girls. Cindy feels like an imposter and is desperate to hide her insecurities and keep up appearances. Severely depressed, she goes on lavish shopping excursions and self-medicates with alcohol and prescription drugs.
To Jende and Neni, who live with their six-year-old son in a one bedroom apartment in Harlem, Clark and Cindy Edwards are the embodiment of the American dream. They offer proof that in America, even a person of modest means can become wealthy and respected. So how is it possible that they “have so much happiness and unhappiness skillfully wrapped up together?”
Vince, the Edwards’ eldest son, provides some rather heavy-handed insights:
Unfortunately, Vince lacks any subtlety or nuance and comes across as a caricature of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Eventually he drops out of school to live his Truth, which, of course, can only be found in India. Though the potential was there, Mbue missed the opportunity to develop Vince into a more substantive and believable character.
While Vince plays a minor role and serves as a stock character, Neni has incredible strength, presence and self-awareness. She reflects on the fact that she is changing as a result of living in the United States. And it isn’t just her outward appearance or confidence, but her very character. This shift culminates in her extorting money from Cindy Edwards. But the scene feels forced, and neither Neni nor her husband appear to be the least bit troubled by her behavior, especially once it becomes clear that they will have to leave America and return to Cameroon. Again, this felt like a missed opportunity.
But there are also extraordinary moments, such as when Vince brings his younger brother, Mighty, to Harlem to visit the Jongas. Jendi and Neni were both self-conscious of their small and cramped walk-up apartment with its second-hand furniture and resident cockroaches. But Mighty enjoyed every minute. He was with people who made him feel safe and he had a new friend in Liomi, the Jongas son. It was an elegant illustration of Vince’s earlier, inelegant point about genuine happiness.
There are times when Mbue’s novel is absolutely brilliant, when her observations strike profound truths. But there were also moments when I found myself rolling my eyes or feeling disappointed that she didn’t dig a bit deeper. Mbue is a skillful writer, but I often felt like she was holding something back. I’m looking forward to whatever she does next, especially if she loosens the reins.
Behold the Dreamers, a novel by Imbolo Mbue, published by Random House in 2016.
This book review is presented as part of my personal challenge to read and write a thoughtful review of at least 30 books in 2018. To learn more about this challenge, the books I have selected, and my imperfect rating system, click here.