I had heard good things about this book by Imbolo Mbue, but I don’t think it really made it onto my TBR list until it won the PEN/Faulkner award. Then, of course, there was the debate about how I could realistically fit it onto my TBR list. I almost bought a copy, but my mom said she already had one. Which is great, but that still didn’t solve the problem of finding the time to read it.
Fortunately, there are audiobooks.
I got the audiobook from my library and listened to it in about a week. I don’t remember the narrator’s name, but he did a good job. The audiobook is especially beneficial for those of us who would have no idea how to pronounce all those Cameroonian names.
It took me a while to get into this book. It’s about a young couple who just immigrated from Cameroon, Jende and his wife, Neni. Jende lied to get into the U.S., worked a few jobs and saved up enough money to bring Neni and their young son. He’s been washing dishes and driving a taxi, but at the beginning of the book, he’s interviewing for a position as a salaried driver for Clark Edwards, a Wall Street executive, who tells Jende he comes highly recommended.
Turns out the stellar recommendation came from one of Jende’s friends, who also lied and told Edwards that Jende had driven a limousine before, even though Jende had done no such thing. But the lie worked and Jende got the job, with a modest salary that’s far more than he could ever have made as a taxi driver. Meanwhile his wife is in the country under a student visa, working and studying to be a pharmacist.
I hate when books start out with everything going well for the main characters, because you know that means everything is about to go down the drain.
The book takes place in 2008 and Jende (who was made to sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding everything he might ever hear Edwards say in the car) overhears his boss talking to other executives at his company about how their strategies are shortsighted and will all come back to bite them in the butt someday. Of course Jende has no idea what any of this means, but the reader understands all too well.
In the mean time, everything seems to be going well. The Edwards appear to be good employers, giving Jende paid time off while they’re in the Hamptons for the summer and even giving Neni some temporary work to help around the house while they’re in the Hamptons – helping look after their youngest son, serving guests during parties and cleaning up afterwards, etc.
Despite all their money, the Edwards family isn’t a very happy one. Clark is working all the time and his wife, Cindy, is afraid he’s not committed to the family. His youngest son misses him and his oldest son is so disillusioned with America and capitalism that he decides to quit law school and move to India.
At one point Cindy gives Jende a notebook and asks him to keep a record of everywhere he drives Clark and report to her. She insists he works for the whole family, not just Clark, and that she’ll make sure he keeps his job if he does this for her.
Of course this puts Jende in a very tight spot because, in fact, he regularly drives Clark to a hotel for an hour to meet up with a prostitute. After debating with Neni and their friend over what he should do, Jende decides to tell Clark about Cindy’s request. Clark said there’s no reason Jende shouldn’t tell Cindy where he takes Clark, but that he should leave out the hotel appointments from his record.
Then everything falls apart. As the reader knew it would, the economy crashes, Clark’s firm goes under and gets absorbed by another firm. Clark gets a position at the new firm, so he has no real concerns financially and Jende goes with him, so it looks like they’re going to be OK.
Until a prostitute comes forward saying a number of her clients were executives for Clark’s firm and that they paid her using bailout funds. She says she doesn’t know her clients’ names, but she knew their titles and Clark’s title was on the list she provided to the public.
That’s the end of Jende’s job with the Edwards family. It’s not instantaneous, but shortly afterwards Clark calls Jende into his office, tells him they no longer need his services, and gives him a nice severance package. It’s not clear that Cindy was behind it, but Jende and the reader are both pretty sure it was her doing. Jende is furious, but he has no choice but to go back to washing dishes. He can’t even get a job as a taxi driver because so many people are out of work that the taxi company has more drivers than it can use.
When Jende and Neni had their second child, Jende forced her to quit school and stop working so she could focus on taking care of the kids. Neni hates it, but there’s nothing she can do. Of course Jende screwed them all over when he did that by making himself entirely responsible for their income. After losing his job with the Edwards family he has to work extremely long hours just to make ends meet.
Through all this is the issue of Jende’s immigration status. The government has caught on to the fact that he has overstayed his visa, so they schedule a hearing and he has to hire an immigration attorney to help get him out of the mess. His attorney assures him they can drag the case on forever and that they won’t deport Jende, but Jende isn’t so sure. Even if they can continue filing appeals, how much would that cost?
Between the struggle to make ends meet and the stress caused by the uncertainty of his legal status, Jende decides it’s time to give up and move back to Cameroon.
Neni is heartbroken. She loves New York City and can’t stand the thought of going back to Africa, but again, there’s nothing she can do. Jende is her husband and their paths are linked. The good news is they’ve managed to save up enough money to give themselves a good start back in Cameroon. Jende can afford to buy them a nice house and start his own business, something he never would have been able to accomplish before his time in America.
This book was not at all what I expected it to be. Instead of waxing poetic on the merits of working hard and persevering, it’s more about the empty promises of the American dream. No matter how hard he tried, Jende was never able to attain it, and even those who were born into it (the Edwards boys) weren’t necessarily happy. It also turned out to be a heartfelt book about marriage and the sacrifices we make to keep our commitments to those we love.
Despite my initially lukewarm reaction to this book, by the time I finished, I had decided I really liked it. I was surprised with the ending, and although Jende’s decision disappointed me, it was completely believable and understandable.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else that took you by surprise?