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Book Review – Behold the Dreamers

A fitting title for a desperate book. A book so caught up in the idea that happiness can only be observed in the distant future.

Behold the Dreamers tells the story of the Jongas, an immigrant family seeking happiness, wealth, and a glistening future from an America they thought they knew, but didn’t really know at all. And as New York City swallows them, their lives intertwine with that of a prominent American family, who unravels at a pace nobody could predict. 

It was so realistically paced that it came off boring. 

I didn’t find myself yearning to read it for any reason other than to put me and my noisy brain to sleep at night until about page 269. Things began to pick up nearing that point. 

It wasn’t bad by any means, it was just slow and hard to push through. 

The writing felt like journalism, like I was reading a very long article about the trials and tribulations of immigrating to the United States. The information was valuable, and I learned more than I can remember learning from one book. I praised the moments I could fit together with things I’d already come to understand, like the subprime mortgage crisis, the historical election of Barack Obama. But it was too trapped in report mode. Too this, this, this, that, that, that. Zero experimentation with how much can be said with one magical sentence. 

Here’s what I knew about immigration before reading this book: Ellis Island, it’s hard to get a green card, The Proposal

Here’s what I know about immigration after finishing this book: A lot 

I understand the enchantment of the United States. I understand Neni’s desperation at the end to stay, despite how much I wanted to slap the shit out of her. I understand the need to make something yours, to claim the future, to be apart of something bigger than yourself and your hometown. I understand the anger coupled with not being in control of your destiny. I understand a lot more than I ever thought I would, and that’s why this read, however tortuous it seemed, was enlightening.

But man, it was a frustrating ride. Each character took a turn being the villain. Clark, Cindy, Neni, Jende. I couldn’t depend on any of them. They all did what they had to do to survive, because despite Clark and Cindy having that American dream of a life, they were just as encumbered by the future. 

The one thing we cannot deny as an entire human race is that we are all alike when it comes to the unpredictability of our futures. 

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “Being poor for you in Africa is fine. Most of you are poor over there. The shame of it, it’s not as bad for you.”

I think ignorance was a really big fatal flaw throughout this book. With every character, even the ones that weren’t very important. 

Neni was perhaps the most ignorant of them all. But I could forgive her, despite her sort of starting the book as the hero and ending it as the villain. She was so mindless when it came to reality. She’d lost herself in a desperate motherhood where her children couldn’t possibly thrive if they weren’t in New York City, which isn’t true. Sure, the quality of life in New York City cannot be denied, but only if you have the funds, if you have the means to live comfortably. For truth, the Jongas weren’t comfortable at the end. Their marriage was falling apart and Jende was breaking himself in half trying to support the family while paying for Neni’s education. 

Her desperation was as frustrating as it was understandable. She’d become someone else all in the name of this invisible American dream, constantly hooded by a happiness she swore existed right around the corner. She swore just being in New York City was better than being happy elsewhere, and how unfortunate her version of happiness had become. She was a real American in that sense. Only we wouldn’t return home if it meant being perceived a certain way, which was definitely part of Neni’s fear. 

America, to her, was synonymous with happiness.

She was too shadowed to realize that most Americans don’t live the American dream, and those that do don’t appreciate this American dream how others swear they would. To put it plainly, this was a great exploration of what living in a fictional destination will do when you can’t ever be present in the only moment you have: this one. 

Jende was a peculiar fellow in that the more you got to know him, the less you started to like him. He really was quite despicable, taking his anger with the immigration system out on Neni. I get it though, as someone who can’t control her waves of irritability, it made total and complete sense how savage he became in his moments of guttural fear. 

You could tell how behind the times the Jongas were from the way they refused to discuss the inevitability of things happening, so as to not jinx it. It was a total testament to how people operate this day and age. My grandparents are never ones to speak about something tragic that hasn’t happened yet that very well might.

Clark was a lost cause it felt for most of the book, and Cindy always seemed like she could be revived. But they fell apart in ways that could never be repaired, and their shocking finale bled through the pages in waves of heartbreak and confusion. The sense I got from them, their purposelessness, it was sad. When others forget who they are or never find out, it’s a tragic thing. 

His life on Wall Street, as suffocating as it was, appeared to be what was giving him air.

Neni’s womanhood was a serious complication throughout this novel, especially coming from a place of immense oppression. Her friends she’d acquired along the way came together as a sort of cheerleading squad for obeying the husband, being the perfect wife, so on and so forth. It became quite toxic, and as a side-plot, it was a great addition to the story. It told of the times, how different they were in the separate countries.

The author did an amazing job understanding both lives. She expertly managed the glamour of Clark and Cindy’s. She never overdid, or over-explained the grandeur of a room, the lavishness of an outfit. She gave it to us in simple lines and examples of wealth. 

[…] they sat in silence, the only noise in the kitchen from the sound of high-end electrical appliances. The kitchen floor had grown warm underneath them.

There was much to do in the city, and yet the desperation remained among many to be out of it, to be in a place where the mission was pleasure and not endurance, to sit where the air moved without burden and the water went on for thousands of miles, a place like the villages of the Hamptons.

[…] with its all-white decor and large windows as if to never lose a view of the sky.

And, likewise, she managed simple examples of poverty, so as to make sure it was never forgotten, but not forced to be noticed.

Television was on. No one was allowed to make noise when television was on.

“It’s good to have a dentist,” Jende said, imagining how good it would feel to have someone else clean his teeth.

We had small moments of clarity from the ever-confusing character that was, Vince Edwards. He was about the only person that seemed to grasp how life anywhere is tough, how a simple shape on the map cannot promise you this fleeting happiness everyone is so concerned with.

As the son of Cindy and Clark, I didn’t expect him to be so enlightened. And while the family found his path to enlightenment humorous, he was behind the scenes, observing and making these grossly accurate observations about the suffering of his family, while living in his truth. 

“And at his age, he still hasn’t figured out his path, which is what happens when you go off pursuing illusions.”

I loved how fed up he was. How curious about the world and the desire to suffer for material goods. It was a great break from all the longing and the let down. The book, as far as books go, was depressing. And this is perhaps because it was realistic. Positive things came of it, but after all the exhaustion and pain, they hardly seemed to be enough. 

We also saw great wisdom in Natasha, the pastor at Neni’s church. She was compassionate and understanding, but still resolute in her position in the world enough to question the choices of others. She was the only strong example of a woman there was. She asked the things I wanted to ask of Neni. Neni grew unrecognizable by the end of the book. Where she began sprightly and wide-eyed, she ended with this narrow vision of the world, and masked all her selfishness as a desire to make a better life for her kids. 

I needed Natasha there to second-guess Neni, otherwise I would’ve lost Neni as a character completely.

Rejoicing with others in their times of joy and your times of sorrow is a mark of true love, Natasha preached at Judson. It shows an ability to subjugate the ego and view one’s self not as a separate entity but as a vital piece of the Divine Oneness.

I appreciate the strategic time of arrival this book had to our world. It follows the 2008 election, the recession, and it felt surreal to see it from a different pair of eyes, especially as our world has fallen into a terrible case of them vs. us. We’ve lost a bit of our unity. We’ve lost a bit of our compassion. But the American dream isn’t impossible, it exists but only in those that choose to believe each day is an American dream in itself. 

Right now, we all need the present moment. We’ve forgotten life goes on.



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