Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Jende and Neni Jonga, immigrants from Cameroon, pursue the American dream in New York City in 2007. Jende is fortunate to find a good job as chauffeur to Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards and his family. Neni is in college, their son Liomi is in elementary school, and they are happy together in their tiny Harlem apartment. Jende hears Clark’s phone calls in the limo, Neni spends time in the Hamptons helping Cindy Edwards with child care, and they both learn the family’s secrets. Neni is pregnant again, and Jende wants her to take time off from work and school, even though their legal status in the United States is uncertain. Then Lehman Brothers collapses, the Great Recession begins, and both families are in turmoil. Jende thinks that with their savings, they may be happier back in Cameroon, but Neni really wants to stay and get her degree. The Edwards, not as resilient as the Jonga family, are even unhappier. They are not as vividly drawn as the Jongas, and I didn’t care about their problems as much. I really enjoyed reading about life in Cameroon, and the Jongas’ interactions with their fellow immigrants. This debut novel is our September book discussion selection, and is also the latest book club selection by Oprah Winfrey. I look forward to hearing what everyone else thought about this compelling novel.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
The poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in this novel set in 1860s Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features her (entirely fictional) maid, recent Irish immigrant Ada Concannon. Emily writes her short poems, gardens, bakes, and occasionally visits with her sister-in-law Susan, who lives nearby with Emily’s brother Austin. Increasingly reclusive, Emily decides to wear only white, and rarely travels beyond her home. In contrast, Ada, 18, is hard-working, outgoing, and friendly. Ada first lives with her uncle, then with the Dickinsons. Her beau, Daniel Byrne, cannot protect her from a stalker, and Emily seeks her brother Austin’s reluctant help for Ada. Except for the stalker, this is a charming story told from two very different points of view, and it made me want to learn more about Emily Dickinson’s life. Several of Emily’s poems are included, a nice touch. Nuala O’Connor is an Irish author, and part of the book is set in Dublin, Ada’s hometown. An unusual and memorable historical novel.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Tess gets a job as maid for dress designer Lucile Duff-Gordon right before the Titanic leaves port. Tess and the Duff-Gordons escape the Titanic in different lifeboats and the aftermath of the tragedy affects them very differently. After reaching the United States on the Carpathia, seamstress Tess still works for the demanding Lucile with hopes of designing dresses herself some day. She also makes friends with reporter Pinky, and becomes closer to sailor Jim and wealthy divorce Jack Bremerton, both Titanic survivors. When the hearings on the Titanic disaster begin in New York City and Washington, D.C., Tess is torn between learning the truth and her loyalty to her employer. Unlikeable Lucile gets a little more sympathetic as the hearings go on and her fashion show opens. New York City in 1912 is vividly drawn, as are the characters, but I would have enjoyed the book more if there was less about the Titanic hearings and more about immigrant life in America.
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien is back home in west suburban Franklin, Illinois, working at a Vietnamese restaurant with her mother and grandfather after college. She has finished her Ph.D. in American Literature but hasn’t yet landed a teaching job. Her mother is never satisfied, while her brother Sam wants money and freedom instead of taking over the restaurant. Lee’s grandfather tells stories about life in Vietnam, and of an older American lady named Rose who visited the café there and left behind a gold pin engraved with a house on a lake.
Lee has always been fascinated with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially as her family moved frequently around the Midwest, and wonders if the lady was Rose Wilder Lane. Maybe the pin really is the one mentioned in These Happy Golden Years. She impulsively decides to look into the writings and life of Rose and her mother Laura, and travels from Iowa to Missouri, San Francisco to Connecticut, looking for answers about Rose, and about her own dysfunctional family. She meets a man who may be the (fictional) grandson of Rose. There is much about Vietnamese food, Asian buffets, and the life of a young academic who’s finding her place in the world. Having recently read another well-researched novel about Rose, Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, it was fascinating to read about other parts of Rose’s life and her writings. The author, a Vietnamese immigrant who goes by Beth, is married with two children and has written two other books, but clearly remembers well the uncertainty of life after college, wondering about future careers, family, and home. I’m putting her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on my list of books to read.
The Big Read Selection for 2013 is The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, a novel about Italian American immigrants in the early 1900s. Here are some more novels you might enjoy:
Alcott, Kate. The Dressmaker. Titanic survivor in New York City.
Cohen, Paula. Gramercy Park. Set in the 1890s, famous Italian tenor rents house near Gramercy Park while singing at the Metropolitan Opera, falls in love.
Duenas, Maria. The Time in Between. Spanish fashion designer stranded in 1930s Morocco, opens dress shop.
Forster, E.M. A Room With a View. Written and set in early 1900s, an Italian pensione caters to British tourists.
Gentle, Mary. The Black Opera. Nineteenth century Italy, opera librettist.
Mazzucoo, Melania. Vita. Two children from southern Italy try to survive in New York City’s Little Italy in 1903.
McDonnell, Adrienne. The Doctor and the Diva. Early 1900s opera singer seeks treatment for infertility.
Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Young priest teaches orphans at a convent during World War II, redesigns old handcrafted puppets to tell Bible stories, but the puppets come to life in this horror novella.
Moser, Nancy. An Unlikely Suitor. Italian American dressmakers in 19th century NYC and Newport, Rhode Island.
Olafsson, Olaf. Restoration. Set in Tuscany in 1944.
Pezzelli, Peter. Home to Italy. Recently widowed Peppi returns to his native Italian village and finds that his old friend and fellow mountain biker Luca now owns a candy factory run by his lovely daughter Lucrezia.
Russell, Mary Doria. A Thread of Grace. Northern Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Many thousands of Jewish refugees fled here during World War II.
Schoenewaldt, Pamela. When We Were strangers. Italian American immigrant finds work as seamstress in 1880s Cleveland and Chicago.
Trigiani, Adriana. Lucia, Lucia. Italian American seamstress looks back on her life in NYC.
Trigiani, Adriana. Very Valentine. Family owned shoe company in New York City, started in 1903 by Italian American immigrants.
Walters, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. 1960 Italy and modern day United States.
Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
Do you remember watching the movie Chocolat with Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp or reading the book by Joanne Harris? It’s been more than ten years, but I still remember how much I enjoyed it. I apparently missed the next book set in the French village of Lansquenet, Blackberry Wine, but I eagerly picked up Joanne Harris’ newest book, Peaches for Father Francis.
Vianne, Roux, and her daughters are living on a houseboat in Paris and Vianne still makes chocolates. One day, Vianne gets a letter from an old friend in Lansquenet who has died, and she and the girls travel back to Lansquenet, to find the village much changed. Muslim immigrants have moved to town, and there is some discord between the Catholic and Muslim communities. Father Francis Reynaud, the priest who tried to make Vianne leave town years ago when she opened a chocolate shop during Lent, is now suspected of setting fire to a school for Muslim girls and a younger, more modern priest is temporarily taking over his duties. Vianne uncovers some dark secrets within both communities, and Father Francis is stunned to learn that she has become his friend. Vianne again tries to work her magic with chocolate and reunite the community, while also worrying about Roux, left behind in Paris. Charming and eccentric, as well as suspenseful, I will remember this book for a long time.