I dare you not to get hooked in the first chapter of Leah Franqui‘s debut novel America for Beginners. You’re introduced to Pival, a recently widowed Bengali woman getting ready to trek across the United States in search of her son’s true fate. The estranged, gay son banished from the family by her dead husband—an angry man who failed to show Pival love or respect while he was still alive.
“Pival Sengupta was going to America to find her son or his lover. And to kill herself.”
Once I read those final sentences of Chapter One, I too was strapped in tightly for the ride.
Accompanying Pival are her guide Satya, an immigrant still green when it comes to the ways of Americans, and her female companion Rebecca, a Washington-born, aspiring actress. Much like Pival’s son, both Satya and Rebecca yearn for the American dream. While their definitions of what that dream means, and the obstacles they encounter seem to lay on opposing sides of a spectrum, both Millennials struggle for acceptance and success.
Their road trip isn’t jammed-packed with action like car breakdowns in the middle of nowhere or life-threatening wildlife encounters. What you’ll read, instead, is a story of three souls who learn to steer around each other’s emotions, needs and cultural differences. While exposition gets a tad long and repetitive at times, Franqui twines themes of homophobia, racism and patriarchal oppression into the narrative without being heavy-handed. Pival, Satya and Rebecca feel real. You’ll root for them regardless of their blunders.
As for how the story comes to an end? Both fitting and satisfying.
I’d like to thank William Morrow for sending me an advanced reader’s copy of the novel. Honest thoughts are my own. The novel hits American and Canadian bookstore shelves on July 24.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐