The Reality of The American Dream
A prevalent theme throughout is the notion of the American dream - an immigrant coming to America to escape the unrest in their home country to achieve a better life in America. This is essentially what Stephanos does in escaping a revolution and starting his own business.The title itself is an excerpt from Dante’s inferno, in which Dante is led out of Hell (in the same way an immigrant supposedly is) and offered a look at what is possible. In this case it would be America, and the search for a better life. However, a big part in this book is realizing the reality of this dream. Oftentimes the portrayal of Stephanos as a lonely store owner evokes the aloneness that all immigrants feel sometimes. Stephanos is faced with challenge after challenge, and his hope and expectations waver throughout his challenging journey towards this better life he thought he was promised.
Gentrification and "Urban Renewal"
A prominent theme throughout the book is the rising trend towards gentrification and an “urban renewal.” One can see from the time that Judith moves into the neighborhood that the feeling of the city is changing fast. Judith herself is a prime symbol of this theme, as she brings with her the trend towards this urban renewal that is so fiercely resisted by the community. More than this, there is a clear relation between this gentrification and the life of an immigrant. Just as Stephanos needed to flee Ethiopia, people are being forced out of their neighborhoods. Guns are replaced with eviction notices and people are forced out in much the same way.
Identity and Belonging
The main character, Stephanos, is faced with the challenge of looking for a sort of home as he enters America. From the time he enters America, he attempts to gain this feeling through the monumental setting of DC, by owning a shop, by emerging himself in the typical “American” lifestyle. However, even then the search is not over. Mengestu, in his life as an immigrant has noted that Stephanos "is driven by a search for a sort of home ... what I think is a pretty universal and pretty common feeling."
Departure and Arrival
A clear theme throughout is the prevalence of departure and arrival. Coming from the New York Times, “Almost every page reminds us that “departure” and “arrival” are deceptively decisive words. Airport terminals, passenger lounges and customs posts cement the illusion that we know when we’re coming and going.”. As Stephanos continues his journey through his life in America, not only does his past signify the departure aspect, but every action leads him to the observance of a new departure and arrival. He goes from place to place, and in the same way that he feels displaced, he often finds that leaving and coming back are two things central to any life journey - whether they be large scale or small scale.
Though this story is focused on Stephanos and his struggle, Rob Nixon of the University of Wisconsin notes that “the deeply felt pain in Mengestu’s novel is offset by the solace of friendship — whether it’s a friendship that hovers on the verge of romance, a friendship between an adult and a child or, above all, the friendships that steady the daily lives of fellow immigrants.”  A theme and trend throughout the novel’s backbone is the importance of these friendships in getting by. They are intertwined with the notion of immigrants. Though Stephanos often struggles and acts as though he is alone, the notion comes back to relationships and the importance of them in not only the bad parts of life but the good parts as well.