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Behold the Dreamers
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message 1: by Diane , Armchair Tour Guide (new) - rated it 4 stars

Diane  | 12949 comments Start discussion here for Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.

message 2: by Diane , Armchair Tour Guide (new) - rated it 4 stars

Diane  | 12949 comments About the Book (from Reading Group Guides & the Publisher)

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream, BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy.

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion and loyalty --- and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ facades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jonga's are desperate to keep Jende’s job --- even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

About the Author

Imbolo Mbue is a native of the seaside town of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a BS from Rutgers University and an MA from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for more than a decade, she lives in New York City.

message 3: by Diane , Armchair Tour Guide (new) - rated it 4 stars

Diane  | 12949 comments Discussion Questions (from Reading Group Guides & the Publisher)

1. Immigration plays a huge role in this novel. For the Jongas, America is a place of hope and promise, a “place where you can become somebody,” but the machine and policies are anything but welcoming and clear and the road to citizenship is jagged. Discuss the portrayal of the American immigration in this novel. How does this shift the traditional representation of America?

2. In Jende’s job as a driver for the Edwards family, he often transcends the boundaries between their public personas and their private lives. Behind the safety of a closed car door, the Edwards show their truest selves and Jende is often a silent witness to much of what they would not show to the world: marital issues, the crumbling of Lehman Brothers, infidelity, family arguments. How does this impact Jende’s understanding of this family? How does it inform our interpretations?

3. Though both the Edwards and the Jongas have their own individual worries, so much of what concerns both of these couples is the well-being and success of their children. Discuss the parenting styles that the Edwards and the Jongas utilize. How are they similar? How do they differ? Why do we place so much weight on the raising of children? How can our own pathways in life lead the way we direct our children? How do our parents impact our view of the world and futures?

4. On the surface, it would seem that Cindy and Neni are two extremely different women. Cindy, in particular, is a conflicted person: sometimes ignorant, conniving, self-centered. However, it soon becomes clear that, in their own ways, Cindy and Neni are bonded, both women struggling to understand their roles as wives and women, and as the novel progresses, their identities seem to merge. How else are they similar? How are they different? What do they learn from one another?

5. Discuss the character of Vince Edwards. What do you make of his relationship to his family and his thoughts about his country? How do his opinions play a larger role in the novel? What do you think is in store for him in India?

6. Though they moved to America to find better life as a couple and as a family, both Jende and Neni are inevitably impacted by the way America shapes their own personal identities. What are some of the ways in which they change as individuals over the course of the novel? How does their marriage change? Do you feel this is for the better or worse? How does it speak largely to the way America’s ideals impact the members of its society?

7. Discuss the role of dreams in the novel. How do dreams drive the plot of the novel? What kind of dreams do these characters wish to achieve? What dreams are deferred?

8. Though external forces drive the plot of the novel, the marriages of both the Edwards and the Jongas fuel a lot of the drama as well. How do these marriages differ? How are they similar? How do both of these relationships influence the events of the story?

9. Though Jende and Neni are both “outsiders” in American society, they also seem to have the clearest observations and insight into American culture. What are some examples of this? How does the role of an outsider provide a unique vantage point?

10. The Jendes often reflect on their home of Cameroon with both nostalgia and negativity; though they have left their homeland for a better country, Cameroon still remains in their hearts and minds. However, it is clear that even for Clark and Cindy, who are American citizens, it is very difficult to forget where you came from, the history that made you who you are. Discuss the concept of “home” in this novel. How does it impact the central characters?

11. Perhaps one of the saddest moments of the novel is the Jongas’ return to Cameroon. What do you think of this decision? How do you envision their lives if they had tried to stay in America?

12. Consider the theme of power in the novel. How do some of these characters hold power over one another? How do they yield this power?

13. Discuss the choice to place this novel in an America on the brink of recession and the Wall Street collapse. How would this story have looked different without this moment in American history? What would these characters’ journeys have looked like?

14. Discuss the character of Clark Edwards, a man who seems to have many different sides. What is his culpability in the collapse of Lehman Brothers? What type of husband and father is he? Would you consider him a good or a bad man?

15. Consider the role of the American Dream in the novel. How is this ideal defined in this story? In what ways is it manifested in the central men and women of this story? How does it fail them?

Laurie | 629 comments I finished this a couple of days ago, and I really enjoyed it. It shows the difficulty of being immigrants to the US who do not have a green card to work legally so finding a good job is extremely difficult. Jende Jonga was very lucky to get a job as a chauffeur with a Wall Street broker due to a personal recommendation. Jende knows he would never have gotten such a good job on his own.

Jende and his wife, Neni, worry every day about Jende's asylum petition being rejected which will mean immediate deportation. Jende did not leave Cameroon because of any kind of persecution so the reasons for the asylum petition are made up. Jende came to America because he was very poor in Cameroon and he wants a better life for his family. But Jende was not going to be able to emigrate legally to the US, so he came as a tourist and overstayed his visa.

Some people may read this story as an indictment of illegal immigration. But Mbue is pointing out how much other people in the world see the US as the best place to pursue their dream. Jende sees that he will never be anything but a poor man in Cameroon because upward mobility is not possible. He was not born into a rich family so he will never be rich. He, like many others, see America as the land of opportunity since you don't have to be born rich to succeed. But what Jende doesn't realize is that the odds are still stacked against him in the US, especially without a green card.

The characters of Jende's employers, Clark and Cindy, could have been caricatures of affluent white people. Clark is a rich Wall Street broker and his wife owns a business as a nutritionist. They have everything they could every want materially. But there are cracks in the perfect façade that are revealed gradually as the story progresses. And Jende is eventually privy to all of the secrets this family is keeping since he drives them everywhere and hears phone conversations. Additionally his wife, Neni, takes a summer job with the family at their beach house and learns more about Cindy and her problems.

One of the things I liked best about this story is that no single character is all good or all bad. Jende and Neni are sympathetic characters who the reader feels bad for since they are struggling so hard to make a good life for themselves and their kids. But even so, they each do something bad when the overwhelming stress in their lives becomes too much. And Clark and Cindy are rich people who hire immigrants which seems nice, but that also means they feel good about their "philanthropy" when it suits them. There were some twists in the book that I did not anticipate which is ususally a good thing. Overall an enjoyable book that can also make you think about issues of immigration.

message 5: by Diane , Armchair Tour Guide (new) - rated it 4 stars

Diane  | 12949 comments Laurie wrote: "I finished this a couple of days ago, and I really enjoyed it. It shows the difficulty of being immigrants to the US who do not have a green card to work legally so finding a good job is extremely ..."

Great review, Laurie! I enjoyed this book, too, and share your sentiments.

Calzean | 749 comments Laurie wrote: "I finished this a couple of days ago, and I really enjoyed it. It shows the difficulty of being immigrants to the US who do not have a green card to work legally so finding a good job is extremely ..."

Totally agree with your comments. The Clark's displayed little but tokenism towards their employees, be they black or white (the loyal Leah gets shafted too) as they were full of their own woes. The ending of the book shows the possibilities that open when a man like Jende has a few dollars available to him; I think someone won a Nobel Prize for Economics for showing the virtue of microfinancing in poor countries. It also shows the horror of America for the poor whether they are seeking immigration or are citizens. I lived in the US for a couple of years and thought it was great if you were white, male, middle classed, healthy and had security and not so great if you were not one or more of those things.

Laurie | 629 comments Calzean, you are so right that the US is a great place for certain people and not for almost everyone else. I know there are success stories about people of all skin colors who started out poor, but for each success there are thousands of failure stories that we don't hear about. People just like Jende who could not make it and had to go home or who got their green card but could never make a decent living. There are millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. It is a very expensive country to live in and good jobs are not there for everyone. Immigrants need to understand before they come here how hard it is even for most citizens to live the stereotypical American dream.

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