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Kelsey Ronan

Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” is a good novel to read while Bernie economics and Trump grandstanding are fresh in your mind. This election season presented two ideas at either extreme of the capitalist spectrum: In one, the top 0.1 percent owns about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and this is immoral. In the other, having a bunch of gold-plated stuff with your name on it qualifies you to run a country. “Behold the Dreamers” is a novel that shows us both Manhattan penthouse heights and an immigrant’s struggle as the lives of a Cameroonian chauffeur and his boss collide on the brink of the 2008 recession.

Jende Jonga arrives in Harlem with a dream of securing American citizenship and success. After two years, he has enough money to send for his wife, Neni, and their son, Liomi, and has a job as personal chauffeur to Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards. Neni enrolls at a community college and works multiple jobs, first as an aide in an assisted-living facility and then as a housekeeper for the Edwardses at their summer home in the Hamptons. The Jongas believe passionately in America and the possibilities it will afford them once they have the right papers. As Jende tells Clark, “I believe that anything is possible for anyone who is American.”

The first half of the novel alternates short chapters from Jende’s and Neni’s perspectives, allowing us to ...

Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” is a good novel to read while Bernie economics and Trump grandstanding are fresh in your mind. This election season presented two ideas at either extreme of the capitalist spectrum: In one, the top 0.1 percent owns about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and this is immoral. In the other, having a bunch of gold-plated stuff with your name on it qualifies you to run a country. “Behold the Dreamers” is a novel that shows us both Manhattan penthouse heights and an immigrant’s struggle as the lives of a Cameroonian chauffeur and his boss collide on the brink of the 2008 recession.

Jende Jonga arrives in Harlem with a dream of securing American citizenship and success. After two years, he has enough money to send for his wife, Neni, and their son, Liomi, and has a job as personal chauffeur to Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards. Neni enrolls at a community college and works multiple jobs, first as an aide in an assisted-living facility and then as a housekeeper for the Edwardses at their summer home in the Hamptons. The Jongas believe passionately in America and the possibilities it will afford them once they have the right papers. As Jende tells Clark, “I believe that anything is possible for anyone who is American.”

The first half of the novel alternates short chapters from Jende’s and Neni’s perspectives, allowing us to see more of the Edwardses as husband and wife serve the family at home and around Manhattan. Cindy Edwards has climbed the social ladder from an impoverished and abused childhood, and while she’s generous, slipping Jende extra money to help his family at home and offering designer clothes and toys to Neni and Liomi, she’s also viciously protective and insecure, wracked with anxiety over perceived slights at brunch. Clark is slippery, a man with a taste for prostitutes, poetry and sunsets. Vince, the Edwardses’ son, floats in and out of the novel to critique capitalism and mystify both Clark and Jende. He’s dropping out of law school to go to India and talks like a mix of a Unitarian Universalist minister and a yoga instructor: “People don’t want to open their eyes and see the Truth because the illusion suits them. … Our only choice is to embrace Suffering and surrender to the Truth.”

But Suffering is a hard sell when Madison Avenue is so persuasively selling status symbols. Neni and her friends Betty and Fatou haggle for designer knock-offs in Chinatown. When Neni buys Jende a new suit from T.J.Maxx, Fatou tells her the purchase is nothing to be pleased about — someday when she has money, then she’ll really get things worth having.

“You gonno buy all you clothes from better, better store. Fine white people store lika Target.” To celebrate family events, the Jongas head to Red Lobster. Faced with frustrations, Jende stops in the bodega for Diet Cokes to “help him force out a smile.”

Sick of waiting to be “embraced,” Suffering comes anyway. As Lehman Brothers goes under, it threatens to take both families with it. While Clark Edwards seems immune to the financial catastrophe, scandal rocks the family. Facing a court date with Immigration, Jende’s circumstances become desperate. In the background, storefronts shutter, unemployment numbers rise, and a campaigning Obama recurs, urging for hope and change. This is “The Grapes of Wrath” sans Dust Bowl.

One of the gifts of “Behold the Dreamers” is the love and sympathy with which Mbue shapes her characters. From a lesser writer, Clark and Cindy too easily could be made caricatures, Jende and Neni martyrs. Each character’s convictions and grievances, however misguided or extreme, are deeply rooted in their experiences of money and success. Though you might wince when, for instance, Cindy asks, “Why should good hardworking people feel bad about their money just because other people don’t have as much money?,” Mbue has given us such an intimate glimpse into her troubled past and social and marital insecurities that we’re reluctant to villainize her.

Perhaps there are no clear antagonists among the two families because instead they face a common, invisible foe: the elusive American dream. For each character must grapple with what that dream is and whether the cost of chasing it is too high.

Their reckoning delivers us a witty, compassionate, swiftly paced novel that takes on race, immigration, family and the dangers of capitalist excess. In her debut novel, Mbue has crafted a compelling view of 21st-century America.

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