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Carmela Ciuraru

As a dissection of the American dream, Imbolo Mbue’s first novel is savage and compassionate in all the right places. Two families in New York are hit by the 2008 financial crisis in radically different ways. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and their son, Liomi. He panics at the possibility of losing his job, being deported and failing as a husband and father. He works as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark lives with his wife, Cindy, on the Upper East Side, with its “streets with no dirt” and “doormen dressed like rich men.” They vacation in places like St. Barths and Aspen, Colo., and own the requisite Hamptons estate, but in private — as Jende and Neni painfully learn — the Edwardses are more tragic than enviable. “In the driver’s seat, Jende pretended not to hear anything,” Ms. Mbue writes of Clark’s constant cellphone conversations. Just as you think the author has served up a rather predictable set of characters (callous rich guy, pill-popping wife, virtuous immigrants), she slyly complicates them. In one scene, after Neni learns that her family’s existence in America has been threatened, her ruthless gambit to protect them is awe-inspiring.

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As a dissection of the American dream, Imbolo Mbue’s first novel is savage and compassionate in all the right places. Two families in New York are hit by the 2008 financial crisis in radically different ways. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and their son, Liomi. He panics at the possibility of losing his job, being deported and failing as a husband and father. He works as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark lives with his wife, Cindy, on the Upper East Side, with its “streets with no dirt” and “doormen dressed like rich men.” They vacation in places like St. Barths and Aspen, Colo., and own the requisite Hamptons estate, but in private — as Jende and Neni painfully learn — the Edwardses are more tragic than enviable. “In the driver’s seat, Jende pretended not to hear anything,” Ms. Mbue writes of Clark’s constant cellphone conversations. Just as you think the author has served up a rather predictable set of characters (callous rich guy, pill-popping wife, virtuous immigrants), she slyly complicates them. In one scene, after Neni learns that her family’s existence in America has been threatened, her ruthless gambit to protect them is awe-inspiring.

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