Imbolo Mbue’s novel “Behold the Dreamers” looks at the fallout of the 2008 financial crash through its impact on a wealthy couple derailed by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and a family of Cameroonian immigrants.

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‘Behold the Dreamers’

by Imbolo Mbue

Random House, 382 pp., $28

At what point does it make sense to give up on the goals you set for your life? When do you admit, after pushing as hard as you can, that you’ve lost?

Cameroonian-American writer Imbolo Mbue, in her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” asks those hard questions. And the answers she delivers are exactly as messy as they should be.

“Behold the Dreamers” takes on a hot-button topic — immigration — and fills it full of gray areas. It’s a fast-paced, character-driven read that, while not always entirely credible, is certainly unpredictable in the way it moves toward its outcome. It also vividly evokes a period — the crash of 2008 and the start of Obama’s presidency in 2009 — that feels more distant than a mere eight years ago.

In 2006, after two years as a cabdriver in New York, Cameroonian immigrant Jende Jonga has the funds to bring his girlfriend Neni and their 3-year-old son to the U.S. from Limbe, their pleasant coastal hometown in Cameroon.

Jende and Neni promptly marry and move into a cramped apartment in Harlem. Neni, on a student’s visa, attends college while working part time as a home health aide. When Jende lands a job as chauffeur to a Wall Street executive and his family, they’re convinced they have it made.

True, Jende’s application for asylum is still in limbo. But his immigration lawyer assures him it will be years before the decision on his residency status comes through.

Two problems: Jende is an economic rather than a political refugee, though he tries to argue otherwise to officials. And his new employer, Clark Edwards, works for doomed Lehman Brothers.

Mbue is canny enough to give us flawed, foolish characters on both sides of this story. Their ambitions are understandable and their intentions generally good — with self-justifying blind spots.

Clark Edwards, distracted by the growing crisis at Lehman Brothers, keeps only half an eye on his family. His wife, Cindy, while abruptly generous in some ways, is on a downward spiral of her own. Their son Vince wants to drop law school for spiritual pursuits. His younger brother Mighty (his odd name feels like an authorial misstep) is both pampered and neglected.

After Lehman Brothers goes under, the Jongas’ lives derail too — and the differences in how they handle their troubles almost break the marriage. While Neni takes flailing and ruthless turns that seem almost out of character, Jende starts to question their whole American dream.

Mbue’s outsider’s perceptions of American life — its stresses, its excesses — are sharp. Her humor can be tasty, too — for instance, when economic woes have Cindy’s circle worriedly “talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes.” She’s also shrewd on the disruptions that come with the Jongas leaving their native land for a dream that may be a delusion.

Mbue sometimes strays into melodrama or over-explanation, but she also keeps crucial plot-points slyly ambiguous. The Jongas’ and Edwards’ dealings with each other, especially, are a tricky blend of advantage-taking, mutual incomprehension and genuine friendly connection.

Result: “Dreamers” is less a story of culture clash than a tale of two cultures passing in the night without ever getting an accurate angle on each other.