America for Beginners
Leah Franqui’s America for Beginners takes a disparate group of Indian-American immigrants (and one white woman) on a trip to California. They each have a different goal, and they all must stick together to survive the concrete wilderness before them.
Pival Sengupta is a woman on a mission. She’s going to cross America, from New York to Los Angeles, to see her beloved son Rahi – who was thrown out of the family home by her husband Ram for being gay – and tell him of his father’s death. Rahi is the only person Pival has ever truly loved in her life, and she doesn’t even have the comfort of knowing if he’s okay. Ram had insisted to her that their son is dead, but his inscrutability means she has no idea if he is actually dead, or simply dead to her husband. Once, Pival was an independent and even scornful college woman, but over the years she’s become the sort of mild, placid wife who’s been repeatedly told by the people around her that it’s improper for a woman of her age and cultural background to be travelling anywhere alone. But now that Ram has gone Pival has decided that her days as a “squeaky mouse”, are over. She sneaks away from her hectoring servants in the middle of the night and catches a flight to the US.
Once upon a time, Ronnie Munshi was a frightened twenty-year-old emigrant named Ronsi, who arrived in America with twenty dollars in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from his uncle. Ronnie’s whole life has been one of self-erasing assimilation, from anglicizing his first name to witnessing his uncle’s transformation from Pritviraj to Raj, a seller of Americanized Indian food. Ronnie built his tourism empire up from the ground all by himself; he went from guiding tours around New York Harbor as part of Circle Line boat tours to having his own specialist travel company. He’s respected by everyone except for his wife, Anita, who is not the reserved, demure bride he’d expected when he’d gone seeking a girl from Bangladesh to wed. Her lack of domesticity, sharp tongue and realistic view of life back home keep him both grounded and irritated.
Jacob – Jake- Schwartz, an LA native, is having a long-distance relationship with Bhim, an Indian emigrant PhD candidate. Bhim’s father’s homophobia forms and shapes Bhim’s whole outlook on being gay as well as causing his estrangement from the family. Though Bhim’s initial plan is to just sample sex with Jake and then to marry a woman in order to please his father, soon he can’t deny who he truly is inside and he and Jake become a couple. Jake struggles with the distance between LA and San Francisco, with yearning for Bhim to acknowledge their togetherness in public – and Bhim struggles with this.
Fresh out of their teens, Satya Roy and Ravi Hafiz are living with four other men in a two-bedroom home in Sunset Park. Friends since the age of six, they left their poverty-stricken home in Sylhet, Bangladesh together, knowing they were both the product of rape. Children of the 1971 revolution, they’d never felt that their destinies were tied to their birthplaces. Satya and Ravi have always loved American pop culture; they think the country will open for them like a hive filled with honey money-wise. But Ravi has loving family back in India; one day he leaves unexpectedly, and Satya finds that assimilation is harder than he thought as he navigates America alone. He overcompensates with loud, bitter opinions and an even louder wardrobe, and becomes one of Ronnie’s guides. He finds himself leading Pival through to New York, telling Pival astonishing lies about America, all the while unsure if he’s Bangladeshi or American at heart.
Rebecca Elliot is a failed actress. Her age is catching up with her, and her alcohol-soaked relationship with a younger man is unfulfilling. She’d come to New York with high hopes and many accolades years ago, but has never made it further than community theatre. She works in a map shop for the kind Mr. Ghazi, a Persian-Iranian immigrant who has made Rebecca a part of his family. She’s careful to reveal as little of her life to him as possible so as to avoid breaching his sense of propriety and losing the small family she’s built there, but Mr. Ghazi can see Rebecca suffering as she holds on to a dream that won’t come true. He calls Ronnie and volunteers Rebecca to act as Pival’s ladies’ companion during her trip; Rebecca resists at first, but ultimately agrees. She’s yearned for change, and now change is here.
All of these characters clash, collide, and find their worlds changing once Pival sets foot in America. For better or for worse, they will change one another, confront their internalized prejudices and seek the future as each discovers what it means to be American and Indian, and what love and the American Dream truly is.
America for Beginners is an ensemble character study, and there are a lot of names and backstories for the reader to remember. I didn’t find this to be problematic, and the novel is firmly centered around Pival’s story, but there is one flaw in the way Franqi has chosen to introduce her characters; they appear one by one and have their backstories explained to us in full and then become interconnected as Pival arrives in America. It would have been preferable to allow them to meet and interconnect and slowly reveal their histories. Franqi is careful to anchor the story in Pival’s point of view which keeps much from getting lost, and the character stories native to the piece are very compelling. This is a very trenchant and timely story in many ways, and in many more, an excellent one.
There is a vital conversation going on in the book about the racist homogenization that people who emigrate to America might undergo in order to be seen as human beings, and about the surface notion of the freedom of American life versus the cozy notion of life back home; about the false and true promises of the American dream. My favorite example of this; every single Indian-born character finds the Indian-American cuisine they sample lacking in some way. Each character has a fantasy about what life will be like when they move to or visit America (or a different part of America) and each character must confront the fact that the reality is somewhat less grand their expectations – but that being around other human beings and forced proximity has been healthy for them. I liked all of them, even the most difficult among them; from Pival’s gossipy desire to be more like Americanized Rebecca and Rebecca’s realization that her life might not be acting after all, to the slow softening of Satya’s edges as he starts to develop an interest in Rebecca, to Ronnie’s realization that Americanizing his tours might be beneficial to his Indian clients.
There are only two minor bobbles in the story. One is the above-mentioned first act character glut. The other is a fourth-act dramatic revelation that is both too obvious and makes no sense from what we know of Pival. YMMV; it didn’t quite work for me, and seemed to be in the book because it needed a late-act conflict of some kind.
In spite of that, America for Beginners is a strong, thoughtful character study that will make you think and breathe and grow with the characters. Books like this are rare. I hope its readers will treasure it.
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