Behold the Dreamers

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Mbue, Imbolo

For fans of Americanah and The Lowland comes a debut novel about an immigrant couple striving to get ahead as the Great Recession hits home. With profound empathy, keen insight, and sly wit, Imbolo Mbue has written a compulsively readable story about marriage, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream. 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 their 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. Then the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Desperate to keep Jende's job, which grows more tenuous by the day, the Jongas try to protect the Edwardses from certain truths, even as their own marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

Discussion Guide: 

1. Describe Jende and Neni Jonga as we first meet them. Talk about their naivete, as well as their perseverance—the lengths, for instance, the couple goes to prepare Jende for his interview. Trace how they change during the course of the novel.

2. As Jende drives Clark and Cindy Edwards about New York, what do we learn about them and their way of life? Is it as glamorous as one would expect? What does Neni learn when she stands in as nanny for their son in Southampton? Are the Edwards good people?

3. At one point, Jende and Neni wonder how people who are as wealthy as the Edwards are could "have so much happiness and unhappiness skillfully wrapped up together." What is the answer to that?

4. What do Jende and Neni love about the U.S? Has reading their story enabled you to see American life with a fresh perspective?

5. Talk about the immigration and legal bureaucracy that is designed to discourage, if not outright prohibit, immigrants from fully achieving the American Dream.

6. And speaking of the American Dream, is the title of Mbue's book ironic...or not? Are the Jongas the only ones in the book who seek the dream?

7. Mbue writes about Jende: "He was an honest man, a very honest man." How does his attempts to live in American change him? Is it worth securing a life in the United States if doing so destroys who he is?

8. How does Mbue portray the 2008 economic collapse and its effect on both the top and the bottom socio-economic levels of society?

(Questions by LitLovers)