There’s no hyperbole in the effusive praise garnered by Philadelphia native Leah Franqui’s first novel, America for Beginners. Her charming story of an Indian widow’s solo trip to America merits comparisons to Anne Tyler (Clock Dance, A Spool of Blue Thread) for its balance of warm, gentle, convincing characters and frank exploration of thorny and timely topics. The book takes on clashing understandings of immigration, friendship, sex, homosexuality, and food.
America for Beginners centers on a collision of cultures from multiple perspectives as sheltered Pival Sengupta purchases her American odyssey from the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company.
Owner Ronnie Munshi is a Bangladeshi, not a Bengali like Pival (a difference crucial to both, explained thoroughly). Ronnie assigns young Bangladeshi immigrant Satya as a guide, and recruits struggling actor Rebecca as Pival’s female chaperone.
Multiple points of view
Franqui, a Jewish/Puerto Rican Philadelphian now living in Mumbai, deftly moves from one character’s point of view to another. All their stories are driven by Pival’s trip, which doesn’t begin until page 102; the novel’s first third introduces Pival and explains her life with her domineering late husband and their ostracized son Rahi. But it also includes chapters from the perspectives of Ronnie, Satya, Rebecca, and Rahi’s American lover, Jacob.
Franqui invites us to soak in the fascinating details of each person’s tumultuous past and uncertain present — all of them seeking something — without wallowing in digressions. Always, the novel pivots on the first chapter’s frank ending: “Pival Sengupta was going to America to find her son or his lover. And to kill herself.”
Once Pival arrives in New York City, the central characters are thrown together by Ronnie’s busy itinerary. It’s a rocky journey: sometimes funny, occasionally harrowing. Class differences, as well as age and gender, separate Pival and Satya.
Rebecca’s American openness about alcohol, sex, and self-expression baffles both, as much as their formality exasperates her. They visit Niagara Falls; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and New Orleans before arriving in Los Angeles, learning and growing along the way. But what Pival will find and do when she reaches Los Angeles remains a mystery that underscores the entire trip.
Through strangers’ eyes
America for Beginners makes the many differences between its characters understandable and relatable through Franqui’s relaxed, seemingly effortless prose. They’re bound together not only by circumstances, but by universal concerns: loneliness, self-doubt, and fear of the unknown.
None are villains; all are flawed. Without artifice, Franqui invites us into every character’s mind. Consider this passage, in a chapter from Rebecca’s point of view:She has asked Mrs. Sengupta, at one of the moments when they had been in the same gallery, whether she was okay alone. Mrs. Sepgupta had smiled at that. "I love being alone. And never am. At home, no one ever chooses to be alone, especially not women. It is so nice here, being alone. And so strange." Rebecca had been shocked. What did that mean, no one was ever alone? Being with people for even an hour could drive Rebecca insane sometimes. How could anyone live that way?
We’re always learning what characters think not only through what they say and do but how others interpret their words and actions. Since perspective shifts every few pages, our understanding grows evenly. We can’t help but root for their success, which is measured not in miles, money, or victory, but by developing tolerance, self-respect, and the will and ability to express feelings.
One might not expect such honesty and assuredness from a first novel. Satya, Rebecca, Jacob, and especially Pival grow in fascinating and satisfying ways, revealing Leah Franqui’s easy yet multifaceted wisdom.
What, When, Where
America for Beginners. By Leah Franqui (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2018), 310 pages, $26.99 hardcover. Buy from Amazon.