I found this book completely by accident. I was at Barnes & Noble, and they had this cute little set up for Black History Month. I had never heard of Behold the Dreamers, but I liked the look of the cover. It had this pretty patchwork situation with these beautiful shades of brown, and I was intrigued. If I’m being honest, the only thing from the description that pulled me in was this part: “However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.” This book (in part) details a husband and wife who start working for a wealthy family, and the crazy stuff they find out about the rich people they work for. I had just watched Parasite so I was all in. I just knew this was gonna turn out to be the black version of Parasite. It wasn’t, but it was still very good.
Behold the Dreamers follows Jende and Neni Jonga, a couple that has immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon. They live in Harlem with their young son and are working their way towards their own American dream. Jende’s cousin helped him get a job interview with Clark Edwards, a fancy Wall Street exec who needs a new chauffeur. He ends up getting the job driving around Clark, his wife Cindy, and their two sons. Eventually Neni works for them during the summer at their vacation home in the Hamptons. This story covers the struggle many immigrants have to endure when they come to America, the challenges of being married for rich and poor people, and whether the American dream is really just an illusion.
Length: 382 pages
Additional Sections: A Conversation with Imbolo Mbue – I skimmed over it, nothing really jumped out at me. She talked about her writing career and her experience as an immigrant.
Year Published: 2016
The Good Stuff
This book tackled a lot of themes, and I’m going to highlight a few of my favorites here:
The American Dream
Jende and Neni have concocted a very idealistic view of what America is supposed to be. They’re living in New York City, which is arguably the greatest city in the world, and they have a plan for where they want to be. Neni’s in the U.S. on a student visa. Her plan is to get her associate’s, transfer to a four-year university, and eventually become a pharmacist. Then she would be able to have a nice little house, a nice car, and children with a normal American life. Jende has legal papers to work while he waits for his asylum application to be approved. He wants to make an honest living and provide for his family. In the beginning, his dreams don’t seem to be as grandiose as Neni’s.
Throughout the story, their American Dream is tested. What do you do if you’re at risk of being deported? How about if you lose your job? What if you have no job and you have a newborn? Is America worth living in squalor for years on end just for the hope of a better life with no guarantee? Should you just give up the fight and move home?
This idea that America is selling people an impossible dream is emphasized by Vince Edwards, Clark’s older son. Vince is a rich white kid who grew up in the Upper East Side. In the middle of the story, he decides to drop out of law school and move to India. He constantly criticizes Americans for valuing the wrong things – all Americans want to do is work for money to buy things to impress people they don’t like, and consume things at a rate that is damaging to the rest of the world without ever considering the consequences of their actions.
I like this dissection of the American Dream. There are many stories about how this dream hasn’t worked out for people, but I think this one is unique. The changes in this story are gradual, and seeing how Neni and Jende slowly become discouraged and nearly ready to quit is a process I’ve never read before.
Although the Edwardses and the Jongas are at opposite ends of the class system, both of their marriages undergo serious challenges throughout the course of the book. For Clark and Cindy, infidelity becomes the issue in their marriage. Clark’s infidelity breeds jealousy in Cindy, who turns to pills and alcohol for solace. Clark and Cindy also start to include the Jongas in on their dirty secrets. Jende and Neni are asked to keep the Edwards’s dirty secrets from others, including other members of the Edwards family. This causes Neni and Jende to start keeping secrets from each other, which creates problems in their own marriage.
As Jende becomes discouraged by the American dream and sees how even unimaginable wealth hasn’t managed to keep the Edwards family together, his family life falters. Throughout the book, Jende becomes more aggressive toward Neni. He makes all the decisions about the money, where they’ll live, and whether Neni will be allowed to work. Even though Neni has a bold personality and does not agree with her husband’s decisions, she gives him full control of the household.
To be honest, reading about both marriages scared me. Being cheated on and being physically abused are two of my biggest fears in marriage. Even scarier is the idea that you can be so in love with someone that you’d allow them to do this to you. Neither one of the women leave. They can’t leave, really – would you give up a million-dollar lifestyle because of a little infidelity? Are you risking being homeless because your husband hit you one time? I want to say I would give up anything to maintain my dignity, but this book gives deeper context to these kinds of situations.
In the past, I’ve been dismissive of women who choose to stay with their lying, cheating partners. As I get older, I understand the complications more. It’s not so easy to just walk out on your lifestyle. But I will always be more critical of the people who violate the marriage in the first place. I do think Mbue did a great job of humanizing the men, especially Jende. Even though he did something terrible, the author breaks down how he becomes discouraged and angry in a way that makes the character easier to understand. I don’t agree with what I did, but I can see how his emotions weighed down so heavy on him that he felt like he had to.
The Jongas and the Edwardses live in the same borough, but their lifestyles are a world apart. Before the Jongas are immersed in the Edwards’s world, their life is happy. They have a son, they’re happy with each other, and their hopes for the future are sky high. As they learn more about the Edwards’s secrets (I’m trying really hard not to divulge them all here), it drives a wedge between Jende and Neni. The worst part? Clark and Cindy DON’T EVEN KNOW that they’ve done all this damage to their marriage. They’re completely clueless. And I think that says a lot.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it – I’m sure some of my middle school English teachers would be proud – but it seemed like Mbue was trying to say that the actions of the rich often trickle down to the poor. Their habits wreak havoc on the lives of the poor, and they have no idea about it. Even when they’re really nice people, they still create problems. It was so sad to read the book and see how Jende and Neni’s marriage began to fall apart towards the end. And doesn’t this relate back to the comments Vince made about how America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Regardless of class, both marriages stayed intact. I think this was meant to be commentary on marriages, and how they might not be all they’re cracked up to be all the time either. Married people have to deal with betrayal, heartache, and disappointment. And they still have to keep things together for the kids, or at least for themselves.
I could keep going, but I think this book explores these topics incredibly well. I think Mbue sheds a light on the complications of immigrating to the U.S. and talks about the fear associated with immigration in a way I hadn’t considered before. It’s easy to dream about how wonderful the U.S. is, but when ICE shakes you back to reality, it’s terrifying. I think this book is absolutely worth the read, especially for those of us who were born in the U.S. and haven’t had to live through the process of trying to become a citizen.
What I Would Change
I definitely thought the book would end with more of a bang. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s not how I wanted it to end. That’s a completely personal criticism, but that’s how I feel. I wish it would’ve ended with everything coming back together – you’ll see what I mean when you read it. But I think the ending was meant to show a harsh reality, and I respect that.
There was also a calm quality about the book. The story itself is very interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. I can’t really explain it, but this book didn’t get my blood boiling or make me want to lock myself in my room and read all weekend. Don’t get me wrong – there are parts of the story that are shocking and did elicit an emotional response from me, but it wasn’t action packed or insanely dynamic. 99.9% of the book takes place in the same state, so I think that contributed to the steady, almost-stagnant feeling that I got while reading it.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
It’s still Women’s History Month, so I’ve got more books by black women I’m checking out. I wanted to read a memoir, so next up is We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union. I’ll report back next week! Thank you guys so much for reading. Every time I get a notification about someone liking or commenting on my posts, I am so grateful. Your engagement with my content means the world to me.