AMERICA FOR BEGINNERS
By Leah Franqui
HarperCollins Publishers, $26.99, 320 pages
Pival Sengupta, a recent widow from India, leads the narrative. Her authoritarian husband has died, and with new-found freedom she decides to travel to America in search of Rahi, her son who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Constrained by years of yielding to a dominant spouse who rejected Rahi when he disclosed he was gay, the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company offers Pival a way forward.
Readers soon discover that it is difficult for Pival to be assertive, but with help from two strangers she meets in New York — Rebecca, an actress who dreams of stardom, and Satya who has only been in New York for just a year (and then mostly staying close to the boroughs) — she begins to find her footing, especially once they travel cross-country together.
The novel proceeds on the power of Ms. Franqui’s complex and well-drawn characters. Satya is constantly starving and his limited experience of the world, especially America, makes him an unlikely tour guide, but he displays a particular skill for keeping things moving.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is more confident, an outspoken American who has her heart set on making it in the acting industry, so a trip that takes the trio from New York to California with unlikely stops in Niagara Falls and New Orleans could not be better.
While Rebecca and Satya navigate the hurdles in their individual struggles and aspirations, both remain committed to helping Pival take some pleasure in her newly-discovered freedom. In developing this collaborative and supportive construct, Ms. Franqui uses humor to make their interactions light and companionable, all the while maintaining a warm authenticity.
The author sets her story against a panoramic and detailed portrait of America, but she also provides vivid portraits of Indian and Bangladeshi culture. Pival and Satya understand the clashing conditions of Bangladesh and India and they reveal the often harrowing emotional toll of class dynamics.
Overall, “America For Beginners” seems crafted to bring readers to an understanding of her characters and to love them. She explains their life stories in ways that make their decisions plausible and of great value.
Ms. Franqui also explores the breakthroughs and the loss of love through multiple relationships — between their friends and family, and even strangers. Her characters each experience a vast range of emotions that show how they grow during their journey, and their trip together underscores the fact that unlikely alliances can sometimes become the strongest ones.
But it is the love Pival has for her son that is without question the novel’s driving force. The bond between the two of them, though never expressed in words, is communicated to readers in the way Pival “looked back at the family portrait, her hands in the shot around a plump and grinning version of Rahi, theirs the only two smiling faces in a sea of familial disapproval and stern Bengali brows.”
This novel can be heart-wrenching, particularly if the reader has ever experienced any similar heartache, but even through its most wrenching segments there’s an ease to the writing that keeps the material from becoming too unsettling or, conversely, sentimental.
“America for Beginners” has something — or someone — for everyone: A feisty young woman who embodies the searching millennial spirit, a sometimes awkward travel guide with reliably grounded views, and a mother who loves her child — and will travel thousands of miles to embrace him. They find their way.
• Sophia Acevedo is a sophomore at the University of California, Fullerton, and a summer intern at The Washington Times.