‘Amer­ica for Begin­ners’ ex­plores fam­ily, iden­tity

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Emily Gray Tedrowe Spe­cial to USA TO­DAY

Trav­el­ing companions can bring out the best or the worst in each other. Luck­ily, the un­likely trio in Leah Fran­qui’s de­but novel, “Amer­ica for Begin­ners” (Wil­liam Mor­row, 308 pp., ★★★g), mostly ac­com­plishes the for­mer.

Pi­val Sen­gupta, a wealthy widow from Kolkata, In­dia, comes to Amer­ica to un­der­stand two things: the coun­try her son left her for, and what hap­pened to him af­ter his fa­ther cast him out of the fam­ily for be­ing gay.

Pi­val has ar­ranged through the hi­lar­i­ously sec­ond-rate and ex­pen­sive First Class In­dia USA Des­ti­na­tion Va­ca­tion Tour Com­pany for a cross­coun­try trip led by Satya Roy, who is told by his boss to cam­ou­flage his Bangladeshi ori­gin, and Rebecca El­liot, a fal­ter­ing New York ac­tor who takes the job of “companion” on a whim.

The novel in­ter­weaves the back sto­ries of Pi­val, Satya and Rebecca as they make their way from bud­get ho­tel to tourist site to unin­spir­ing In­dian restau­rant, in one city af­ter an­other.

Rebecca in­tro­duces Pi­val to Thai food and ideas about fe­male free­dom that scan­dal­ize and in­ter­est the older woman. Mean­while, the al­ways hun­gry Satya strug­gles to keep up with a job he is woe­fully un­der­pre­pared for.

As they visit the Lib­erty Bell, the Lin­coln Memo­rial and the Las Ve­gas Strip, Pi­val re­treats into pri­vate an­guish about her son. Run­ning par­al­lel to her jour­ney are scenes from an un­known time when Pi­val’s son, Rahi (call­ing him­self Bhim), finds love and hap­pi­ness in San Fran­cisco.

As the trav­el­ers get closer to Cal­i­for­nia, the stakes rise: Will Pi­val learn the truth about her son? What will she do?

“Amer­ica for Begin­ners” is a com­pelling story deep­ened by char­ac­ters who grap­ple with iden­tity and na­tion­al­ity in sit­u­a­tions that are some­times funny and of­ten painful.

Pi­val’s Ben­gali her­itage clashes at first with Satya’s Bangladeshi, even as most Amer­i­cans they meet can’t tell the dif­fer­ence. Rebecca’s sex­ual frank­ness puts her at odds with her more con­ser­va­tive companions. But the heart of this novel is Pi­val’s wrench­ing self-re­al­iza­tion about how she and her cul­ture treated her gay son. We em­pathize with her sor­row at dis­cov­er­ing too late how she might have acted dif­fer­ently.

Read­ers may chafe dur­ing the first sev­eral chap­ters while the plot gets set in mo­tion a bit too slowly – Pi­val doesn’t ar­rive in USA un­til a third of the book has passed. That time could have been used more fruit­fully in the fi­nal chap­ters, where a poignant new re­la­tion­ship de­serves more de­vel­op­ment.

Still, Fran­qui’s novel res­onates as a strong con­tem­po­rary story about cross­cul­tural alliances, the bonds of fam­ily and what it means to “learn Amer­ica.”

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