Book Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were
Imbolo Mbue

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Here’s an example of a book that got a lot of hype, but fell short for me. So get ready for a mini rant! I highlighted How Beautiful We Were last December after I watched a livestream of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times. Because of the praise, the novel made my list of books I wanted to read. I mean, look at the cover! It’s beautiful, although I’m also sharing the alternate cover below, which does not appeal to me.

What other hype did it get? In addition to The New York Times’ praise, How Beautiful We Were was named one of the ten best books of the year by People, The Washington Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, The Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Ms. magazine, BookPage and Kirkus Reviews. NPR also gave the book high marks: “Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel’s end, has it firmly held in her hand.”

Alternate cover – not appealing to me!

What’s it about? It’s the story of a fictional African farming village, Kosawa, and their fight against Pexton, an American oil company. Thula, a young woman from the village, becomes her people’s leader as they wage battle against the company which, in collusion with His Excellency’s government, has poisoned their waters, killed their villagers and made their land inhabitable, all for profit.

The story begins in 1980 when Thula is a young girl and spans forty years. During this time, many of the village’s children fall sick and die because of the poisoned water. Their long struggle against corporate America begins when Konga, the village madman, stands up against Pexton’s visiting representatives who then become Kosawa’s prisoners. The situation becomes violent, inciting the village’s younger men to get revenge. Years later, Thula becomes the group’s leader and works with American lawyers to make things right.

Told from several points of view, representing Thula, her mother, uncle, brother and the children, in a collective voice, readers learn the history of the ancestral village, its beliefs and its spirituality, as well as the legal battle with Pexton.

I was disappointed I didn’t like it.

It’s a weird feeling when you don’t like a book that has received so much praise, especially a book that talks about a fight I absolutely agree with. What I don’t like is that because of its themes and backings, the book becomes untouchable. I mean, how can I say a book that has an important theme isn’t good?

In my view, there were a couple problems with it. First, the author reminded me of evil corporate America and His Excellency’s corrupt government too much, almost on every page. I felt that this approach left little room for character development and resulted in a boring and overly long book. I’m reviewing it because I took the time to read it and I’m giving it three stars. Here’s why: I agree we need to do something about government and big business ruining land and wrecking its citizens lives, so this book serves a purpose. In addition, I liked how the author showed the opposing and strong opinions about using violence. And I liked how some characters resisted dedicating their lives to protesting, preferring to just live their lives. Both of those things seemed real to me. But my other issues with the book cap my rating at three. So there you have it!

Here’s what other readers think:

The Pine-Scented Chronicles
Liz from Goodreads
Katie from Goodreads

Have you read How Beautiful We Were? What did you think? Leave a comment!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

27 thoughts on “Book Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

  1. Hi Book Club Mom! I haven’t read it but I kind of don’t want to either. I always tend to shy away from very hyped up books until some time has gone and it’s less talked about. I always find it such pressure and no one wants to be the one who doesn’t like it. I trust your opinions 100% so it won’t be one I read. I support the cause, like you say, but you don’t have to like every book on that specific topic or theme. X

    1. Hi Books and Bakes – yes I wouldn’t recommend it and although her first book, Behold the Dreamers got great reviews, I think I will pass on that too. Thank you for your comments 🧡🧡🧡

  2. I won’t be reading it. This is an honest, well stated review, Barbara. It is hardly a new theme – so its message didn’t need to be hammered home so frequently. Your comments about little room for character development and boredom ring true – a bit like children’s books with more instruction than imagination.

    1. That’s excactly what I mean. I don’t need to have a theme pounded into me and neither does anyone else. The great writers make their points without being told how to do it and it’s just part of their stories. Thank you, Derrick. I appreciate your comment 🙂

  3. I haven’t read it, but usually when an author lets an agenda (any agenda) drive the story, you end up with a not-great book. Focus on the characters/plot/quality of writing, and you can get a theme across more powerfully (example: Dickens, whose stories moved Victorians to repeal the Poor Laws).

    1. Hi Janet – I completely agree with you. It’s as if new best-sellers that become highly recommended by the media and reviewers are written backwards. Just give me a book by an author who tells a story with their own ideas. Thank you for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  4. I’m afraid this is what the media-recommended books have become – political statements about everything evil, from the government to oppression on the basis of a myriad of factors. I took the time to sample some of these recommended books this year and found only one that I can say I liked (Cloud Cuckoo Land.)

    1. I agree and I often feel like big time authors, publishers, the media, editors and reviewers are all in it together, driven by agendas and sales. I’m not against books that have a message, but it seems like these modern well-known authors deliberately write about political and social issues and throw a plot in there to round it out. Whatever happened to authors writing fantastic books set during tumultous times, that represent a social climate or a culture, but just come from their own ideas? Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Tale of Two Cities. Lee, Hemingway and Dickens didn’t need an editor or publisher to tell them what ideas to push and they built their themes into great story lines and great characters. I haven’t read Cloud Cuckoo Land yet but All the Light… is one of my favorites.

  5. I tend not to read many top ten books as I am usually disappointed. This is one I would have never read anyway. Thanks for the honest review.

  6. Barbara, I’ve come to trust your judgement of a book and thank you for the review. By the way, the setting of the novel immediately brought to mind our own Jackson, Mississippi, where more than 150,000 people of the predominantly Black city, now lack access to safe running water.

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