When you’re living in an age of Peak Entertainment, there’s one big problem: choice. Having too many fantastic books to read is a much better problem than having too few, but it also means deciding what to spend your time on can be difficult. Thank goodness, then, for Oprah’s Book Club, which has once again descended from the literary heavens to help us choose.
The latest pick for Oprah Book Club, announced today, is perhaps the perfect novel for this moment in time. Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is a tale of the immigrant experience in America, a novel concerning the 1%, income inequality, and the housing bubble and Wall Street’s culpability in it, and it showcases a broad range of human relationships. It has been hailed as perhaps the first great 21st-century American novel, and in our current political environment it might be the most necessary piece of fiction you’ll read this year.
If (as if) Oprah’s imprimatur isn’t enough to convince you, here are five things you need to know about Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers.
1. Mbue writes from experience
Behold the Dreamers is about Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, who move from Cameroon to the United States in 2007, seeking what all immigrants once sought in this country: a better life. Jende parlays intelligence, enthusiasm, and liberal doses of self-hype into a job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers. The Edwards also find work for Neni, and it seems like the Jonga family has a firm foothold in the American Dream. And then, of course, the economic crash of 2008 hits, and in short order the American economy is in chaos—and Lehman Brothers ceases to exist, sending Jende and Neni into a panic over their jobs.
Mbue, herself a native of Cameroon, came to the U.S. in 1998 in order to attend school. Taking night courses, she earned a Masters degree in education and psychology at Columbia University while working a series of jobs: receptionist at a dental office, bank teller, dishwasher, lingerie saleswoman at Nordstrom, and door-to-door vacuum-cleaner saleswoman. Once out of school she found a job doing market research, and when the economy went bad in 2009 she decided not to give up that job to pursue a Ph.D.—only to be laid off.
2. The book has been big news since before its publication
Behold the Dreamers first made headlines back in 2014, when it sold to Random House for seven figures—and then sold film rights to TriStar. Back then it was titled The Longings of Jende Jonga, and it was already one of those novels people in publishing circles whispered about.
Of course, plenty of books that get talked about fail to live up to the hype—but Behold the Dreamers has. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book, was longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award, and made it onto many “best of” lists.
3. It’s more complicated than the summary makes it sound
While the book focuses on two recent immigrants and their pursuit of the American Dream, this is a quintessentially American story. If you’re imagining a two-dimensional 1% vs. 99% story in which the Clarks—rich, white, complicit—are villains and the Jongas are unalloyed heroes, prepare yourself for a much subtler, more nuanced book. Mbue manages to make her characters human. The Clarks, often painfully unaware of their privilege and their blind spots, are depicted as decent people battling their own demons, trying in their way to do good. The Jongas are hardworking, good-hearted people—who nevertheless struggle with their own frailties and shortcomings. Mbue isn’t offering a simplistic story, but rather a deep investigation into what it means to be American today.
4. It offers a necessary perspective on class
Many celebrated novels that deal in class in America are told from the perspective of relatively affluent people, but Mbue tells hers from the point of view of the Jongas, who live in a small, dark, roach-infested Harlem apartment. For the Jongas the economic downturn isn’t a distantly threatening event, but a clear and present danger that may destroy everything they’ve worked for, underscoring how little security and safety immigrants have in this country—a situation that is steadily getting worse.
5. Jende Jonga is a great and complicated character
One of Mbue’s sly bits of genius in this book is that Jende, our protagonist, is not a flatly sympathetic hero: he and his wife both engage in dangerous self-deception, as well as plain old deception. On the one hand their regard for America and the opportunity it represents is almost religious, and on the other Jende is a bit of a Don Quixote, puffing up his achievements—he tells people he works “on Wall Street” and struts about with a briefcase, playing the big shot. He’s wonderfully rich and fully developed, warts and all.