By Anya Shukla
I loved this book so much I read the nearly 800-page (according to my e-reader) novel in one sitting. (And my optometrist wonders why my prescription is increasing…) Mbue sure knows how to turn a trope on its head. Scratch that. Mbue sure knows how to write.
Not much I can say in this intro other than READ THIS BOOK READ IT RIGHT NOW. And then email me so we can have a discussion about America. Please and thank you :)
Review: Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” explores the myth of the American Dream through the lens of the Jonga family—Jende, a cab driver; Neni, a college student; and their son, Liomi. The Jongas had moved from Cameroon to America roughly three years ago, but have overstayed their visas while waiting for their green card application to be approved. Through a friend, Jende applies for and secures a chauffeuring job for Clark Edwards, a high-level employee at Lehman Brothers. The Jonga family gets wrapped up in the Edwards’ lives… but amidst the 2008 stock market crash, their carefully constructed house of cards comes tumbling down.
Mbue takes her time with this storyline, teasing out such realistic, well-thought-out characters that one can’t help but empathize with every one of their actions. With compelling dialogue and drama, she details the lengths that immigrants will go to stay in America, even if that decision isn’t in their best interests. My Rating: 4.75/5.
What I Loved (slight spoiler alert): Oh my gosh. So much.
At the beginning of “Behold the Dreamers,” Jende sees America as a beautiful place, an equalizer; he knows that there is “nothing… any man can say to me to make me stop believing that America is the greatest country in the world” (pg. 228). As the Great Recession begins, however, Jende’s life begins to crumble around him. He loses his job as a chauffeur and works long hours as a dishwasher to just barely make ends meet. Because he isn’t in the U.S. legally, he cannot return to Cameroon for his father’s death and must watch the funeral on a six-hour-long video. His immigration trial looms. On top of all this, he sees the Edwards, a commercial-ready, successful, wealthy American family, crack under pressure like an impure gemstone.
Jende’s perspective on the United States dims: “America is not all that; this country is full of lies and people who like to hear lies… Anyone who has no sense can believe the lies and stay here forever, hoping that things will get better for them one day and they will be happy. As for me, I won’t live my life in the hope that someday I will magically become happy (pg. 681). He rejects the American Dream, the idea that with enough hard work and dedication, an immigrant can raise themselves up by their bootstraps and give their children a better life in the United States. Jende does not see his suffering as a deposit for a comfortable future.
Jende’s newfound perspective illuminates the flaws in pervading American myths: that the United States is the best country in the world; that with grit and dedication, anything is possible. At what point does one say, enough is enough? After all, “Cameroon did not have opportunities like America, but that didn’t mean one should stay in America if doing so no longer made sense” (pg. 660).
I feel we have been conditioned by American society to see hard work as the answer to life’s problems: oh, I’m working myself to the bone now, but at least my progeny will have a secure, high-paying job and happiness. Immigrant Family Works Hard And Secure Idyllic Life: the conventional headline. Mbue attacks this idea. America is not perfect. The American Dream is not the right choice for everyone. You don’t have to lose sight of yourself to give your children a seemingly better life.*
What I Didn’t Love: The lack of resolution for Neni. At the book’s end, Neni desperately tries to keep her family in America: she considers putting her children up for adoption by an American couple and divorcing her husband to marry a green card holder. While she recognizes the joy that living in Cameroon will provide her kids—a comfortable life and close-knit family—she admits that “they would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers” (pg. 732). Neni’s reticence about returning to Cameroon also stems from wanting a different life for herself. Only in the United States can Neni have a career as a pharmacist, a dream she has been working towards for many years.
In the book’s final chapters, Neni weighs the benefits and drawbacks of Cameroon for her children. Yet she never really addresses the loss of her career dreams and how she might feel stifled in her home country. For me, Neni’s sudden lack of selfishness—especially given that she has fought so hard for her dream by studying at night for her degree and shutting down naysayers in her Cameroonian family—feels unrealistic. Even just a sentence or two about the loss of her pharmacy career would have been valuable.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “I am tired of people wanting me to care about them more than I care about myself and my family” (pg. 574).
Up next: “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo.
*There are obviously situations where life in America is better than that in your home country, and it’s entirely possible that Jende’s children’s lives would be better in America than in Cameroon. But the overall message still applies.