Review America for Beginners: A Novel by Leah Franqui

On July 24, 2018

Pival Sengupta has done something she never expected: she has booked a trip with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. But unlike other upper-class Indians on a foreign holiday, the recently widowed Pival is not interested in sightseeing. She is traveling thousands of miles from Kolkota to New York on a cross-country journey to California, where she hopes to uncover the truth about her beloved son, Rahi. A year ago Rahi devastated his very traditional parents when he told them he was gay. Then, Pival’s husband, Ram, told her that their son had died suddenly—heartbreaking news she still refuses to accept. Now, with Ram gone, she is going to America to find Rahi, alive and whole or dead and gone, and come to terms with her own life.

Arriving in New York, the tour proves to be more complicated than anticipated. Planned by the company’s indefatigable owner, Ronnie Munshi—a hard-working immigrant and entrepreneur hungry for his own taste of the American dream—it is a work of haphazard improvisation. Pavil’s guide is the company’s new hire, the guileless and wonderfully resourceful Satya, who has been in America for one year—and has never actually left the five boroughs. For modesty’s sake Pival and Satya will be accompanied by Rebecca Elliot, an aspiring young actress. Eager for a paying gig, she’s along for the ride, because how hard can a two-week “working” vacation traveling across America be?

Slowly making her way from coast to coast with her unlikely companions, Pival finds that her understanding of her son—and her hopes of a reunion with him—are challenged by her growing knowledge of his adoptive country. As the bonds between this odd trio deepens, Prival, Satya, and Rebecca learn to see America—and themselves—in different and profound new ways.

 

 

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Susan Johnson
TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE

I was so surprised at how much I liked this book. In the hands of a less skilled author, it could have gone so wrong but it didn’t. It was sweet and charming. I liked the characters, all of them. They each had their own tough journey and all came through with real growth which was great. I cared about them all.

Pival is a recent Indian widow who is suddenly enjoying her freedom. She has been quite oppressed by her domineering husband, bullied by his constant stream of bullying relatives and bossed by her servants. She has not been farther than 5 blocks from her home in Kolkata. She has lived a life of restrictions. She decides to go to America to see her son, Rahi, who has been studying marine biology at UC Berkeley. There is a slight problem. She has been told that he is dead but she’s not sure exactly what that means. Rahi has been exiled by her husband because he is gay. So when the call comes that Rahi is dead, she is not sure if that is literal or just dead to them according to her husband.

She plans her trip through a travel company that specializes in Indian travelers and plans the itinerary around Indian restaurants. Her guide is a young boy, Satya, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh, and her chaperone, Rebecca, is a confident, struggling actor. This mismatched trio start their journey by visiting NYC Niagara Falls, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New Orleans. They then travel to Phoenix to see the Grand Canyon and on to Las Vegas. As they travel they make connections and Pival starts to appreciate what drew Rahi to this strange country. All of them learn new things and life lessons.

As they make for their last stop in Los Angeles where Rahi’s lover, Jake, lives and Pival readies herself to confront the truth about her son. The final meeting is both painful and healing. This is a book that will warm your heart and make you so glad you read it. It’s a wonderful debut novel.

Chel Micheline
TOP 500 REVIEWER

I LOVED this book. I don’t say this often, but this is the kind of book that makes me so grateful I had the opportunity to read it. Something about “America for Beginners” really touched me. It’s not going to be rated as a ground-breaking book of fiction that will change the literary world or anything, but it’s not intended to be that. It’s simply a moving story of several very different people who meet one another during a widow’s trip to America in an attempt to reconnect with her son.

Pival Sengupta decides to travel to United States after her husband passes away. Their marriage was loveless, and her husband dictated all aspects of her life (including the exodus of their only child, Rahi, after he came out to them) and Pival is determined to try and make sense of the years she lost with her son by going to California, tracking down his partner, and finding out the truth of his experience.

Ronnie, who operates a tour company in NY specializing in tours for people from India (mostly organized around decent Indian meals), plans the trip for Pival and matches her up with two companions- Satya, a new arrival to the US himself, and Rebecca, a young woman from Washington DC who hit a dead end with her acting career and took the job on a whim. They are to accompany Pival across the country, look out for her, provide a meaningful “American” experience for her, and assure all her needs are met.

As the three travel across the country, their individual narratives of the experience are mingled with those from Jake, Rahi’s partner. He has no idea Pival is on her way to find him and through Jake’s point of view, we get the entire story of how Rahi and he met and came together as a couple. It is through Jake’s narrative that we come to know Rahi not as his parents saw him, but as someone struggling to come to grips with what it meant to be an independent adult who was deeply mourning the loss of his family and culture.

I’m not doing a very good job at explaining this book, and even though it seems like a story told from five points of view would be muddled, it works beautifully. Each character is able to offer a perspective on the unfolding story that is unique and insightful without being repetitive or cliched.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s not all sunshine and smiley faces, though- there’s some serious stuff in here about societal and familial expectations, what it means to distance yourself from the people you are most connected to, and what it’s like to lose a dream and have your heart broken by the people who are supposed to love you the most. But it’s all shared in such a beautiful way that it comes across as meaningful and not heavy or trite.

Like I said, this is the kind of book that makes me so grateful to be a reader. I don’t often say that, and so I hope that by including that sentiment in my review, it will emphasize how much I enjoyed this book.

VINE VOICE

Advertised as a mix of Slumdog Millionaire and Little Miss Sunshine, America for Beginners has elements that might remind you of both, but it is so much more.

Pival Sengupta is an Indian widow who decides to tour America, with a secret agenda to look for her son. She finds Ronnie, who organizes tours for Indians, and is paired with Satya, a Benagli young man who serves as a tour guide, and Rebecca, an aspiring actress who serves as a chaperone for the widow. Together, the three of them tour America (more on this later).

The strength of Franqui’s writing comes from her characterization of Pival, who is the central character in the book. I loved Pival. I imagine there aren’t many books out there with a character of a 60 year old Indian woman, and she is drawn realistically and precisely. She never wanders into stereotype (although Franqui sometimes seems to fall into that with other characters, especially Ronnie and Satya). Pival is solid, real, and trying to make sense of this strange country she’s visiting, at the same time, trying to make sense of her life, and her son, who is missing from it.

In LA, her son, Bhim meets Jack, and together form a relationship that strains Bhim’s understanding of himself, and of his culture. Bhim is the other character I was drawn too, and found his reflections on life, family dynamics, and relationships, based on understandings from his own childhood, utterly fascinating. Jack and Bhim could have been their own book. It is one I would read.

But, what this book isn’t is a road trip across America. Franqui lands the trio in several East Coast stops, and then zooms the people over to Las Vegas and LA, skipping vast portions of the country. There is very little dialogue/events happening on the road. It’s almost as if Franqui spent her time setting up the characters so much that when it came time for the trip, she felt like she was running out of book so she sped them through to the end. They might as well not even visited Vegas, for it was over incredibly quickly. Once they arrive in LA, it slows again to the conclusion.

Still, I loved the book because I loved Pival and Bhim. They are both quiet characters, shaped by their lives and culture, who come to America to see and experience something else. And as the story ends (no spoilers here), it ends in such a way that I totally loved. Franqui nails it, and leaves the reader refreshed, reflective, and remembering this beautiful Indian woman came to America.

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