Imbolo Mbue, herself an immigrant from Cameroon, has written a story focusing on two couples, one an immigrant family from Cameroon and the other, their upscale employers in New York City. Mbue starts her story in the fall of 2007 and weaves a tale that combines the difficult decisions that many immigrants must face with the looming financial crisis.
As the book opens, Jende Jonga has just been hired as a chauffeur by Clark Edwards, a top executive for Lehman Brothers. This job enables Jende to bring his wife, Neni, and their 6-year-old son to New York, where Neni finds temporary work for Edwards’ wife, Cindy, at their summer home in the Hamptons.
All, of course, does not go smoothly. Jende does not have his green card and has been assured by his “cousin,” acting as his immigration lawyer, that it is only a matter of time. Together they craft an exaggerated story to document Jende’s claim of dire danger to himself – from Neni’s family in Cameroon — that will, hopefully, convince the immigration authorities to grant him asylum status. In the meantime, Neni uncovers and documents Cindy’s drinking problem.
At the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Jende loses his job and with it, the Jongas’ ability to pay the rent on their modest apartment. The financial squeeze leads Neni to take steps of her own that come as a surprise both to the reader and to Jende.
Throughout, Mbue shines her light on how these marriages work, and don’t work. Cultural differences play an important part, as we watch the Jongas through the lens of a strongly patriarchal background against the Edwards in a modern America where Cindy finds herself as a very wealthy stay-at-home mother/professional volunteer not quite in step with the times. Patterns of communication and non-communication, honesty and deceit, and saving face are woven together to craft a compelling story.
The ending was both disappointing to me and, strangely at the same time, inevitable. But however I was feeling at the time I read the conclusion of this book, I found the whole book eminently readable and insightful. Mbue has a strong voice and her characters are well drawn and true to human form, with their flaws and strengths, their compassion for one another and their casual disregard. I cared about these people. And, for me, that’s one mark of a good novel.
— Jeanie Smith