A road trip across America is the perfect balm needed to mend a broken heart. Or it’s an interesting way for a lost person to discover the things they didn’t know about themselves. This idea of “road trip” takes on a slightly different meaning in the novel America for Beginners. Instead of a stereotypical group of artists or lost twentysomethings, this story features a Bengali widow and her guides as she travels across the US to uncover the truth about her son and decide on whether she wants to live or die.
In her debut novel, author Leah Franqui tells a story of loss and acceptance. America for Beginners starts with multiple characters feeling lost and dejected. Pival Sengupta’s husband passes away (a death she does not mourn), and she decides to leave a town she’s lived in for her entire life to find out if her son is actually dead. His death could be a cruel lie used by her husband to cover up his recent coming out to his parents. Her tour guide, Satya, is a Bangladeshi man pretending to be Bengali and who has stolen a job from his best friend and only companion left from home. Rebecca Elliot, Pival’s travel partner, is an aspiring actress who can’t find her break, dealing with her parents’ disappointment via booze and men. This trio couldn’t be more different, and each character’s unique experiences and perspectives help transform the others.
The story is told from multiple points of view. Pival, Satya, and Rebecca are obvious choices for narrators as they are the ones embarking on the road trip. However, their story is peppered with chapters from Jake, a gay landscape architect living in Los Angeles, who navigates a relationship with Bhim, a man who struggles between wanting to love Jake freely and pleasing his traditional Bengali parents. The struggles between cultures and familial versus personal expectations run throughout this novel in both heartbreaking and beautiful ways.
While America for Beginners gets off to a slow start and relies on some of tropes common to road-trip and culture-shock plots, the novel is emotional and humorous. Pival and Jake are charming characters, but readers do not have enough time to enjoy their interactions. There are times where the book touches on the ugliness behind prejudice and ignorance, but it only delves slightly. Franqui was smart in establishing a backstory for her characters that highlighted their openness and empathy. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to embrace the change that many characters experience throughout the novel.
America for Beginners is a novel that illustrates how relationships can impact an individual for better or worse. These characters came from different backgrounds with different experiences, yet they impacted each other’s lives for the better. Its hopeful ending will leave readers understanding that what separates us as humans is in our minds – not in borders or prejudices.
- "Brynn Devereaux is a freelance writer for Baltimore OUTloud. As an arts writer, she enjoys exploring the local arts scene and bringing attention to new books and authors. Brynn is a Scranton expat and a Towson University graduate."