Review: Behold the Dreamers

Disclaimer: At the end of this post, after the rating/verdict, there are spoilers. These spoilers are made completely separate from the bulk of my review. If you do not want to read the spoilers, do not scroll past the little bit that says, “Caution! Spoilers ahead!” 🙂 

One of my goals for 2017: read one book per week this entire year. Five weeks in, I thought I was going to crash and burn. 😥 Luckily, my husband is all too happy to let me spend entire weekends reading — because that means he gets to spend his weekends in the shop, or playing PS4 with Derrick. (I love when we both crave Me Time at the same time.) Anyway . . . on with the review.

Behold the Dreamers, written by Cameroonian immigrant Imobolo Mbue, is one of the September 2016 Book of the Month Club selections and an intimate portrait of a timeless cliche: the pursuit of the American Dream. The story opens in New York City with a description of Jende Jonga, a Limbe (Cameroon) native who has lived in America for several years. Jende is passionate about and devoted to Becoming American, but there’s a problem: his visa expired years ago. After having lived in America without his wife, Neni, and their child, Liomi, for three long years, Jende is certain that he will become a legal American citizen and fulfill his lifelong dream of achieving a better life.

Jende takes a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Wall Street magnate who appears to have it all — trophy wife, doting family, a seemingly-endless cash flow, an opulent home, and the respect of his peers. Mr. Edwards quickly becomes a fount of inspiration for Jende, despite the superficial nature of their relationship: Jende begins to regard Mr. Edwards as a young child might adore his father. As the story bounces between sketches of Jende’s interactions with Mr. Edwards and his family members, Neni’s life at school and home, and Neni’s interactions with Mrs. Edwards (who hires her temporarily), readers will find it impossible not to root for the couple whose unrelenting hope propels them through one trial after another.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes — all good things must come to an end, and for Jende and Neni, the threat of deportation looms heavily over their ambitions. In parallel fashion, the Jonga family’s relationship becomes increasingly strained as the Edwards family empire begins to crack under pressures long ignored. The two families frantically struggle to survive (much less, thrive) while Mbue delivers a stark juxtaposition of those who have — and those who do not.

The Good: While others have complained that the novel felt lackluster and did little to draw them in, I was enamored with Jende’s character almost immediately. Mbue’s masterful use of pidgin English makes the language (and characters) come alive. (I was strongly reminded of my collegiate running days and international teammates from Kenya and Nigeria.) The novel is also a fairly quick read: I picked it up Saturday morning, only 50 pages in, and managed to finish the whole novel before nightfall.

The Bad: See spoilers.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. This novel isn’t a stellar debut, in my humble opinion. At times, the story felt a bit cliche; but the themes of strife and devotion make the novel a worthwhile read.

***

Caution! Spoilers ahead! Don’t read any further if you wish to remain surprised.

***

The conclusion of this novel felt rushed — and that was significantly disappointing. Here are my two biggest sources of contention with the piece:

  1. The Jonga-Edwards fallout leaves a bit to be desired. The build-up was there, of course, but the tale feels looser and less . . . intentional? . . . as the Jonga family endures its last flailing months in America and the Edwards family merely fades into the background. Part of me feels that Jende had an opportunity for a major character evolution within the walls of Mr. Edwards’ office. Additionally, Jende’s last-minute farewell to Mr. Edwards left me feeling . . . well, nothing, to tell the truth. The scene felt far too contrived and convenient — a dulled Christmas bow slapped hastily on the package that could have been a cherished gift, but fell a little short.
  2. When Jende and Neni return to Africa, they just . . . return. Of course, there’s a father-son generational bonding thing that occurs when the family arrives “home” — and Jende certainly undergoes a significant character change. Though a bit unconventional, the author’s decision for the main character to give up on his dream is, in my mind, a perfectly adequate conclusion to Jende’s years of obstinate refusal to be jilted by the Great America. That being said, Neni’s conclusion feels largely underwhelming. While I understand that the dynamic of their relationship differs from that of my “Western marriage,” I felt that Neni’s story sort of folded underneath her as the author searched for an ending (any ending will do).

I found much to enjoy in this piece of diverse fiction; but the ending fell flat for me. What was your take on this novel (and/or the bones I picked at the end)?

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