America for Beginners is, I think, the best book I have read this year. It is about the many forms of loneliness. It is about things which hurt. It is about forgiving people. It is about being a stranger in a strange land, and being a stranger in a familiar land, and what to do when you are both at once. It is about characters who ask questions which hurt.
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Recently widowed Pival Sengupta has never travelled alone before and her first trip to this strange country masks a secret agenda: to find out the truth about her long-estranged son.
Satya, her guileless and resourceful tour guide, has been in America for less than a year – and has never actually left the five boroughs of New York.
An aspiring/failing actress, Rebecca signed up for the role of Pival’s modesty companion; it might not be her big break but surely it’ll break her out of the rut she’s stuck in.
As their preconceptions about each other and about America are challenged, with a little beginner’s luck, these unlikely companions might learn how to live again.
A big-hearted, hilarious tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, reminding us that there is no roadmap to life. (blurb, as always, from goodreads)
Pival is asking: Who am I when I am without the context of my family and my home?
Rachel is asking: Who am I if I am not what I have always dreamed of becoming?
Satya is asking: Who am I as I become a person my friends would not recognise?
These are all questions of identity, something that the human race is “desperately curious” about when we manage to pay attention to other people in their relentless existence. Identity is something that is fraught for me, as it is to a lesser or greater extent, to all people. I have never been to America; I know it only throught the fragments I have collected from books and movies and friends. But I know India, and I know what it is to belong in India and love it wildly and also be from somewhere else, and find that these facts are, to some extent, irreconcilable. Leah Franqui knows about the layers of identity and belonging too, and manages them magnificently in her novel.
I am sick of ‘immigrant narrative’ stories, written by middle class immigrants from some country that was once a colony, with families that cling hard to tradition because it is all that anchors them in a new land, and children who rebel wildly, wanting to redefine their parent’s parameters of success. These novels are important, but America for Beginners is not one of them. For one thing, Pival, the main character, is not an immigrant. She is a visitor. Rebecca is not an immigant either: she has never needed to question her belonging in America. And while Satya is an immigrant, he is not educated (whatever that means), he is not a doctor or lawyer. He has gathered the crumbs that America has left in its greasy corners and hoards them carefully.
America for Beginners is not a novel of simplistic identity. I appreciated Franqui’s examination of what it means to be Bengali, and how a border has fractured that identity. The interaction of religion worked very well too: Rebecca is Jewish, Pival and Satya are Hindu, but there are Muslims in the story too. The complexities of sexuality, and what Rahi’s upbringing did to his understanding of who and how he loved, was painful, but so well done (and I thought that the lens of Jake, his lover, made that so much better). The way that language dictates identity in context, the difference between North Indian and Bengali food: wherever Franqui writes, she adds nuance. I appreciated, for instance, Satya’s thought that
“Sideways had been the only way to approach anything.”
when he has washed ashore in the land of the brash and direct, prices, like other things, fixed and inflexible It is exquisite. As someone who has spent most of her life in India, I find that immigrant stories do not satisfy me, because I do not share any of that experience. But this felt like it really reflected my understanding of a country I can sometimes call my own.
Leah Franqui is the best kind of writer. She uses frequent figurative language. Her prose is beautiful without being vain, which is honestly so hard to do (it’s something I struggle with so much in my own writing!). All of the sentences make sense, the writing is never distracting, but it does evoke that sense of awareness that good writing does, where it makes you want to notice things in new and surprising ways.
“Everything was fine, everything was great, everything was so light it could crush you.”
“Pival wondered if that’s how ghosts were made, angry spirits whose bodies had been destroyed by time rather than fire.”
“The dirty fading glory of Kolkata crumbling under the weight of modern life.”
Franqui writes gracefully, using third person past tense, the best way to deal with multiple perspectives. The shifting from person to person never feels wrong, which it has in essentially every other novel like this I have read. Only once does she end a chapter with an opening door and an expansive unknown. Usually, I find this a cheap trick; but the use was so restrained as to be all the more compelling for it. The writing has moments of humour, too, like
“The man could find rice in a pasta store.”
I cannot recommend this novel enough, and I could write much more about it, but I have already stayed up late for this book once. I plan to buy it (I got it from the library) and reread it, and cherish it in every way. Being Indian is complex, and so is travelling, and so is death. America for Beginners is a book that deals tragedy as liberally as comedy, and it ended in the best way: with a river as dense as America, characters who were able to move on, but not without me caring a whole lot more in the process of their doing so.
[tiny disclaimer: one of the reasons I picked this up is that I had a Skype conversation with the author a few years ago for unrelated reasons, and she was amazing to talk to and I thought that she was fantastically cool and so I vaguely followed her online since then and she is kinda #goals to be honest and so smart and funny and I love that she sews her own clothes (and probably a mess on the inside just like all other human beings, but wow I would like to be her friend), so you could say that I’m a bit of a fangirl. But even if you know nothing about Leah Franqui, her writing speaks for itself.]
What is the best book you have read this year? and if you’ve been to America, or even if you just know it from books, what advice would you give to beginners there?