America For Beginners has the qualities of a quintessential summer read. Characters you can fall in love with; a story of family, hope, and new adventures; a warm, witty style that draws you in from the opening lines as Pival contemplates her decision to travel to America.
Her plans have resulted in raised eyebrows and stern warnings from her relatives, friends, and her servants. Leading the charge is her maid, whose pride and acerbic tongue provide instant hilarity, declaring that her mistress must have lost her mind with grief.
The truth is, Pival is not grieving – at least, not just for her recently deceased husband. Her desire to visit America comes from another source of grief: her estrangement from her beloved son. Now her husband is gone, she is free to find him.
She gets in contact with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company, ensuring that they arrange a tour guide and a modesty companion for her. Satya has been living in America for less than a year, and this will be the first time he has been trusted to conduct a tour alone. Rebecca, meanwhile, young woman chasing her acting dreams in the bright lights of New York City. It’s not quite turned out the way she’d hoped, and being a modesty companion was certainly not a career move she expected.
The unlikely trio set off together, and as they each chase their unique ‘American dream’, they share experiences that prove to be life-changing for all of them.
I adored this book. Literally adored it – I have talked about it relentlessly, and as soon as my hardback copy arrives, I’m sharing it with my sister. I couldn’t put it down but I was afraid of it ending – I knew instantly that I would feel bereft at having to leave these characters.
From the opening chapter, I was enraptured. It felt like I knew Pival already: how stifled she’d been feeling, the trauma of losing her son, and her need to discover the truth. Franqui quickly establishes the conflict between tradition and adventure in Pival’s mind – the battle between her community’s warnings and her instincts – which instantly makes us want to root for her.
From then on, the narrative shifts from person to person, weaving a tapestry of memory, present moments, observations, bringing the threads of their lives together in a beautiful tale of learning, understanding, and forgiveness.
We see Ronnie, the owner of the Tour Company, trying to balance his often demanding customers, help his employees sell the ‘American experience’, and figure out how he ended up married to a woman who refuses to comply with even his most simple requests (asking her to be Pival’s modesty companion wasn’t unreasonable, he insists).
We meet Satya as he contemplates his first, independent trip, quickly studying the tour’s destinations, and worrying that he has few respectable clothes to take with him. Like Pival, he is hiding something: a betrayal that has left him plagued by guilt. As we learn more about the experiences that led him to America from Bangladesh, and see him so genuinely try to give Pival the best tour he can, he becomes such an endearing figure.
Rebecca’s story perhaps begins a little clichéd (it could be the books I’ve read, but it seems like people only move to New York to achieve acting dreams). That little niggle aside, I related so much to her experience. Her desire to be independent of her parents and her concerns about her career choice were so familiar to me. Though it’s not work she had ever considered, she takes the role of Pival’s companion just to do something.
Inevitably, the differences between Pival, Satya, and Rebecca cause tension, as well as some hilarious misunderstandings. Yet there are some gorgeous scenes where they open up to each other, or contemplate their own situation anew. Those introspective moments were so touching, and very real. As someone who enjoys travelling, both within the UK and abroad, I find that being in a new place allows for moments of contemplation that can alter your perspective – of yourself, of home, and of unfamiliar cultures.
America for Beginners provides some balm for the relentless media focus on barriers that divide places and people. Franqui instead uses her characters to remind us of how our differences are more like lines in the sand than brick walls – while they exist, we can also reach across them (even walk across them or alter them). We can understand what is shared in spite of those borders, as well as appreciate what is unique about a person and their life. It was a very powerful concept running through the novel that was both insightful and uplifting.
If I were to draw any comparisons, the most obvious would be to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things. America For Beginners has a similar wit, and focuses on what it means to be courageous and hopeful in the face of harsh realities. Franqui’s writing is also incredibly sensual – I feel immersed in the settings because Franqui delivers it in visuals, in detailed sounds and smells. That kind of writing felt Zadie Smith-esque, as did the narrative structure, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As I said earlier, it was a book I could barely stop reading, as it was so accessible and enjoyable.
I’d fully recommend America For Beginners. It hit all the right notes for me, having the depth of character, emotion, and story to invest in, but maintaining a fresh, vibrant tone. Franqui’s skill in achieving this balance is extraordinary, not least because this is her debut novel.
So if you’re looking for something to keep you entertained this summer, check out America for Beginners.
*The copy pictured in this review is a proof, so the cover depicted is not the final version. I used these pictures to provide a visual aspect of the review and I intend to replace them once my hardback copy arrives.
**America for Beginners, written by Leah Franqui, is published by HarperCollins UK
***Many thanks to the team at HarperCollins UK for sending me a proof copy