58 pages 1 hour read

Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Behold the Dreamers, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and a selection of the Oprah Book Club, was published in 2016 by Imbolo Mbue and is the author's debut novel. Set in New York, the book traces the varied impacts of the 2008 recession in the United States on the lives of two couples: the Jongas and the Edwardses.

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant in the US on a temporary visa pending his asylum case; Neni Jonga is a community-college student on a student visa. Clark Edwards is an executive at Lehman Brothers (the firm whose bankruptcy played a major role in the recession), and Cindy Edwards is a nutritionist with a rags-to-riches background.

In 2008, Clark Edwards hires Jende to be a chauffeur. The job offer comes as a welcome change in the Jongas’ luck, which has been hard since they emigrated from rural Limbe, in Cameroon, to a shoddy apartment in Harlem. As Jende drives the Edwards family about the city, he learns that money has not made them happy. Clark seems stressed about some problems with the books and leveraging of debt at Lehman Brothers; further, he occasionally engages in encounters with sex workers. Cindy has imposter syndrome because she grew up poor and was conceived out of rape. Vince Edwards, a law student at Columbia, rejects his parents as too materialistic but nonetheless takes their money. Mighty, a child, is shuffled back and forth between school and activities by domestic help because his family is so busy.

The lives of these two families begin to intersect. Clark is increasingly absent and stressed because he feels a sense of foreboding about the reliance of Lehman Brothers on shoddy bookkeeping and investments in subprime real estate products. Cindy, already insecure because she feels she is not good enough for her husband, turns to alcohol and Vicodin to soothe her worries over her marriage and absent husband. Vince, on the cusp of graduating from law school, rejects his pathway into the wealthy elite by deciding to go to a retreat out West and later to India, to find himself. Mighty grows increasingly unhappy as he overhears more and more acrimonious arguments between his parents.

Jende's life is complicated because of his pending immigration case, overseen by a marginally-competent lawyer named Bubakar, who makes constant requests for more fees. Jende’s request for asylum is rejected and he knows he will be deported sooner or later. Neni discovers that she is pregnant. She receives a welcome respite from the grueling cycle of classes, all-night study sessions, and homemaking when she accompanies Cindy and Mighty to the Hamptons, to serve as live-in help. While at the Hamptons, Neni discovers that Cindy is an addict and that the woman is deeply unhappy.

Matters come to a head for both families. Vince devastates his parents by telling them he will be going to India. Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy. Jende loses his asylum case when the judge rejects his fabricated story of persecution at home; he prepares himself for return to Cameroon. A newspaper story about a madam with Wall Street clients confirms Cindy’s suspicions that Clark is cheating on her, and Cindy forces Clark to fire Jende, who has covered for his boss.

Meanwhile, Neni, who was unable to work during the end stages of her pregnancy, and having quit her job at Jende's request (he wanted her at home with the new baby girl, Timba), discovers that no financial aid is available if she wants to return to school and that pharmacy school is prohibitively expensive. Desperate to salvage her dreams and find the lawyer's fees for Jende, Neni blackmails Cindy for $10,000 to keep silent about Cindy's addiction. Her plan to secure her future fails, however: Jende is tired of struggling, and agrees to return to Cameroon voluntarily. Jende beats Neni one night after she blows up over his high-handed decisions.

Cindy dies after a binge of drinking and drugs. Clark becomes a lobbyist for the credit union industry. The Jongas, using the blackmail money as a nest egg, return to Cameroon, where Jende plans to be an entrepreneur and live comfortably in Limbe, where such money is enough for affluence. Neni stands by Jende, despite her own love for America and sadness that her children may miss out on the opportunities in America.

Editor’s Note: Page citations for this guide are based on the Kindle edition of the novel.

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