America for Beginners: A Novel
- By Leah Franqui
- William Morrow
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Landweber
- July 31, 2018
An Indian mother journeys to the U.S. in search of her possibly deceased son.
The road novel has a long and storied tradition in American literature. Something in our nature appreciates the narrative conceit of wandering this expansive nation, usually down dusty highways in a beat-up car, with all the requisite detours and colorful encounters such journeys entail. America for Beginners by Leah Franqui provides a new twist on this usually aimless, meandering genre: the pre-paid, package-tour novel.
The package in question is put together by the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company, a travel agency that caters to the moneyed class in India and takes great pains to hide the fact that it is run by Bangladeshis.
The owner of the company, Ronnie Munshi, spends his days popping Tums and arranging visits to America for mainly small groups of wealthy Indian women on a lark. But he has a problem with his next booking, which is for a widow named Pival Sangupta, who is planning to travel without companions.
Propriety demands that Ronnie not send Pival on a cross-country trip alone with only a male tour guide. Ronnie needs a woman to accompany them; he does not hire female guides. To make matters worse, the guide scheduled for the trip, Satya Roy, is embarking on his first tour of the U.S. himself. So when a friend recommends an underemployed struggling American actress named Rebecca Elliot for the part of traveling companion, Ronnie eagerly accepts.
Of course, none of them know the true reason for Pival’s visit to the U.S., which is a far cry from an interest in sightseeing. Her son, Rahi, who was disowned by her and her husband when he came out as gay, left India to live in California. Her husband told her that Rahi had died, but she isn’t sure it’s true. Now that her husband himself has passed away, Pival is determined to go to America and either find her son alive or kill herself if he is, indeed, dead.
Without the backstory on Pival’s son, this might have been a screwball comedy in the best Bollywood tradition, given the volatile mixture of the proper Pival, inexperienced Satya, and free-spirit Rebecca. And even with the grim specter of death trailing them, that might have still been the case if the three of them had been put in a car and let loose to drive west from their starting point in New York.
Instead, our travelers hop from city to city, either chauffeured by professional drivers or on airplanes, with a precision that Ronnie would be proud of but which too closely resembles the sterile nature of a real-life package tour. They rarely stray from their set itinerary until the very end. The novel might have benefited from letting them get lost at least once.
Luckily, the stories of these characters’ lives, which are woven throughout the novel in flashbacks and asides, are compelling in ways that the tour itself is not. Pival is a tragic figure, a mother whose culture and marriage made it impossible for her to love her son for who he was. It is heartbreaking to watch her finally reach out for him only after he is possibly gone.
Similarly, Satya’s past in Bangladesh is colored by the difficult history of his country and his struggle to escape it. Even Rebecca, whose privileged background makes her failures to achieve her dreams stand as an interesting contrast to the other characters, still manages to be drawn as a poignant figure in her melancholy.
But the true heart and soul of the story is a character not on the tour at all: Jacob Schwartz, Rahi’s American boyfriend. His chapters are interspersed throughout, telling his story of meeting Rahi — whom he calls Bhim — and falling in love.
The most powerful moments in the book come as Jacob, who was celebrated when he came out to his parents, tries to understand Bhim’s deep struggles with his homosexuality. It is Jacob’s home that is Pival’s ultimate destination in America for Beginners.
It should not be a spoiler to expect that Jacob and Pival will eventually come together to air their diametrically opposed grievances about culture, lifestyle, and the other’s treatment of the young man they both love.
The remaining characters’ stories pale in comparison to those of the mother and boyfriend who have never met and don’t see eye to eye. Their final encounter is worth the wait, though the novel itself might have benefited from Pival taking a direct flight and spending more time in Los Angeles.
Michael Landweber is the author of the novels, We and Thursday, 1:17 p.m. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, American Literary Review, Barrelhouse, and Ardor. He is an associate editor at the Potomac Review.