I can safely say this is one of my leading favorites for any of our November selections. It’s a month when we pick a book that circles around family; the drama, the trials, the love, and everything in between. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue was no different. A top book of 2017, Mbue’s debut novel, Oprah’s Book Club 2017 selection, and a New York Times bestseller. It’d been on my list since its debut, and I had high hopes!
It’s the story of the Jonga family, and their journey to a happy life. Jende Jonga moves to New York City from Cameroon to find a job, provide for his family, and dutifully walk the path to citizenship in the land of opportunity. The book begins when he gets a stable, well-paying job as a chauffeur for Mr. Clark; a top executive at Lehman Brothers. The catch? It’s 2007. You may think you’re witnessing an American dream about to come true, but it’s much more complicated.
The characters are powerfully written. I was deeply invested in each of their stories, and each of their dreams, no matter how divergent they were. Jende shoulders the pressures of his family’s future, life as an African immigrant, and his own dreams of becoming someone greater than he could have been in Cameroon. His wife Neni dreams of becoming a pharmacist, a life of possibilities for her children, and a home in America. But dreams, especially immigrant dreams during the great recession, can change course.
Each member of the Clark and Jonga families suffer through their own challenges. But they’re all forced to consider, in a very real way, what they’re willing to sacrifice to make their dreams come true. They’re faced with unfair questions like: is your dream right? Is it good? Is it worth it? Is it really yours? The paths they each take change them in different ways. And they find themselves asking, who have you become while chasing this dream? Is this who you want to be?
“Our people say no condition is permanent… Good times must come to an end, just like bad times, whether we want it to or not.”
With short chapters, great writing, rich and diverse characters, Behold the Dreamers was a delicious, moving, roller-coaster of a book. It was simultaneously heart-warming, tragic, frustrating, nightmarish and idealistic. The fates of each character had me hooked at the way through. Would these families find happiness? Would their dreams come true? Were those the same thing? I love when a book can be more than one thing. When it can tell a story that’s both desperate and hopeful. It doesn’t take sides. Mbue does a beautiful job showcasing how life and family are ever-changing and complicated. She shines in that gray area. And I LOVE when an author can leave you thinking that things weren’t all right or all wrong, they just are. (Our current immigration policies being the exception in my opinion).
Without giving anything away, this book didn’t end in a neat and tidy little bow. Things broke. Some dreams stayed out of reach. Some found the light. Some dreams changed. This book wasn’t a happily-ever-after kind of story. But much like the American dream, it gave you just enough of a taste of possibility to shed a light of hope over these family’s stories.
In conclusion, I loved this book! And you should go read it now 🙂