When Oprah says “read this book,” I usually listen. I’m especially glad I listened when Oprah picked BEHOLD THE DREAMERS for her book club. Centered on a young Cameroonian family that moves to New York City in search of the American Dream, BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is a bighearted, illuminating story about marriage, class, race, and dreams that all Americans need to read.
The story starts as Jende Jonga lucks into a chauffeur job for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. As Jende chauffeurs Clark around, he becomes intimately acquainted with the lives of Clark and his family. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Jende’s wife, Neni, work at their summer home in the Hamptons.
Things are finally looking up for Jende and Neni, but soon he begins to realize the world of privilege is riddled with immoral behavior and secrets. His relationship with Clark deteriorates just as the financial world is disrupted by the Great Recession. The lives of Jende, Neni, Clark, and Cindy are suddenly pushed to economic breaking points and they face impossible decisions.
There is an astounding, if savage, beauty to BEHOLD THE DREAMERS. Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant herself, has imbued her characters with incredible life so that every time Jendi and Neni’s dreams are trampled—marriages fissure, money dries up, careers derail, reality fails expectations—you feel physical pain in your gut. You forget they don’t exist off the page.
Jendi and Neni’s alternating perspectives allow readers to experience both sides of their marital frustrations. One minute I was furious on Neni’s behalf, incensed that Jendi expects her to be a perfect wife and mother on top of taking night classes to pursue her dream of becoming a pharmacist. Pages later I felt every ounce of the enormous pressure Jendi feels to provide for his family while his entire world falls apart and he’s powerless to fix anything.
Mbue demonstrates a profound capacity for compassion in her characters. She gives them each value, virtues and vices aside. Even with Clark and Cindy—who are white, wealthy, and oblivious to their employees’ struggles—Mbue considers the pain of their individual disappointments. In the Reader’s Guide at the back of the book, Mbue says she had to learn “that showing empathy doesn’t really have anything to do with having similar demographics or backgrounds or lifestyles. It’s about shared humanity.”
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is a stunning lesson in empathy from which all dreamers and readers will benefit.
There have been dozens of novels recently published about the financial crisis of 2008, but few have focused on those most profoundly affected: the working families left to pick up the pieces. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and child when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. As the story alternates between Jende and Neni and speeds perilously close to economic disaster, they learn about privilege, pride, and impossible choices.