‘America for Beginners’ explores family, identity
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.”