America For Beginners, by Leah Franqui

>> Wednesday, October 24, 2018

TITLE: America For Beginners
AUTHOR: Leah Franqui

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Recalling contemporary classics such as Americanah, Behold the Dreamers, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a funny, poignant, and insightful debut novel that explores the complexities of family, immigration, prejudice, and the American Dream through meaningful and unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.

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 Kolkata 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. Pival’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, Pival, Satya, and Rebecca learn to see America—and themselves—in different and profound new ways.

A bittersweet and bighearted tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, America for Beginners illuminates the unexpected enchantments life can hold, and reminds us that our most precious connections aren’t always the ones we seek.
When I'm travelling, I like to read stuff that's somehow relevant. Sometimes it's a book about or set in the area I'm travelling in, but in this case it was more about the circumstances. I was travelling around Georgia as part of a small organised group (I like to get off the beaten track, but if I'm not in a country I'm quite familiar with, I'm a bit nervous of doing it on my own -very good decision in this case; I would NOT have wanted to drive some of those mountain roads!). So, I thought, a book about an Indian woman on an organised tour of the US seemed fitting, albeit in an oblique kind of way.

Pival Sangupta is a recent widow living in Kolkota. Her life feels empty and pointless, not because she misses her husband Ram, but because his actions when he was alive isolated her and took away what she loved most in the world. When their son, then studying in the US, came out as gay, Ram decreed that neither of them would speak to him again. Their son is now supposed to be dead, but Pival is not even sure that is true: there was an unexpected phone call, Ram picked up, he said their son was dead, and that was that.

So now that she's finally free, Pival has decided to go find out the truth. But it will take a bit to work up the courage, so she arranges for a tour of the US, starting in New York and finishing in Los Angeles, where her son used to live (lives?).

The travel agency she contacts is one that caters to Indian travellers, but is secretly run and staffed by Bangladeshis. The owner, Ronnie Munshi, is terrified (with some reason) that his wealthy Indian customers would want nothing to do with Bangladeshis. Since his more experienced guides are either unavailable or unsuitable, Ronnie decides to entrust Mrs Sangupta to one of his newest hires: a recently arrived Bangladeshi young man, Satya. Satya has never actually left New York, but he's hardworking and has spent many hours studying his guidebooks, so he should be fine, Ronnie thinks.

Mrs Sangupta has also requested a suitable female to accompany her and the guide, and that one has Ronnie stumped for quite a while. He ends up chancing on Rebecca Elliot, a young actress who takes the job because things aren't going great for her in New York, and how hard can travelling as a companion be?

America For Beginners was a wonderful read. It brings together three very different characters. Pival, Satya and Rebecca differ in their backgrounds, their worldviews, the stage where they are in their lives, what they're trying to achieve. Pretty much everything. And yet, the intensity of travelling together makes them into a weird sort of team. Each of them is also very well-drawn. I felt I understood them and the way they related to each other (they may become a unit, but they do not become friends) felt right and true. Emotionally believable, I guess I would say. I was especially fascinated by the the dynamics and prejudices between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, which were as new to me as they were to Rebecca.

The book deals with some heavy stuff, particularly Pival's grief about her son, but Satya and Rebecca have issue to work through as well. However, the book itself never feels heavy. In part this is because there is some lovely humour here, a great deal of it courtesy of The First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. The name itself speaks volumes :) It's a bit of a ramshackle outfit, and all we see about how it works is brilliantly and heartbreakingly hilarious. The way Ronnie speaks is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of obsequiousness, pedantry, and bullshit, and Satya is his excellent apprentice. This all brings some much-needed levity.

But also, I loved that the book manages to end in a hopeful note that felt believable. No, we're not talking fairytale happy endings here, but hope is enough for me.

Finally, I genuinely enjoyed the more 'travelogue' sections. It was really interesting to see what struck Pival about the US, as it's all so different to what has struck me, also a foreigner, but from a very different place, when I have visited.



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