A story that mixes the trials of the rich during the fall of Lehman Brothers with the struggles of being an immigrant in New York, Behold the Dreamers is a confusing tale that can’t seem to decide on what point it is trying to make.
An immigrant man from Cameroon becomes a chauffeur for a partner at Lehman Brothers at the beginning of the story. His pay increases and the standard of living for his wife and himself improves. His wife, Neni, has come to America on a student visa, and is attending a community college as the first step toward her dream of becoming a pharmacist. They have a child who was born in Cameroon, and soon she becomes pregnant with another child, who will be granted dual citizenship.
Their most significant concern is money, a concern shared by their employers. You will see the decline and inevitable fall of Lehman and merger with Barclays included in the plot. Jende’s boss, Clark Edwards, and his boss’ wife, Cindy, are helpful to them, until they are not. Cindy uses drugs and drinks very heavily, and Neni is party to one of her benders when she is hired to be their housekeeper. She promises to keep this information secret, and in return Cindy gives her some of her old designer clothes and her son’s used toys.
When Lehman falls, Clark starts to cheat on his wife pretty frequently, and suspecting this behavior, Cindy asks Jende to write down everything her husband does and report to her at the end of each day. When a news story exposes Clark’s behavior via a story provided by a prostitute, Cindy demands that Jende be fired for lying to her. Clark gives in to her demands, and Jende and his family are thrown into a very dire situation, dashing their hopes for a future in America.
Set in the heart of the American recession triggered by failing banks, Ponzi schemes, and hedge funds, the combination of the immigrant story with the fallout is odd. The book takes a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ approach and in turn leaves you wanting. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel bad for the rich people, or for the immigrants, or for the children. It all seemed so useless and pointless, which I suppose may have been Mbue’s entire message. Despite this, I still feel like books such as Adichie’s Americanah gives a much better modern picture of the African immigrant in America, while taking into account the political and social climate.
Behold the Dreamers was just okay. Why should we feel badly for the rich individuals? Why should we invest in the immigrants when their papers will expire and not allow them to stay? The ending to this book will make you scratch your head and wonder, “what was the point of reading this book at all?”