Book review: ‘America for Beginners’ a charming debut from Leah Franqui

The setup of Leah Franqui’s charming debut novel, “America For Beginners,” sounds like it may presage a bit of a downer: The widowed Pival Sengupta leaves India for New York City, where she plans to travel cross-country, determine the fate of her gay son (disowned since he came out) and then kill herself.

The result is anything but depressing, however, largely due to Franqui’s bungling but lovable cast of imperfect and all-too-human characters, especially Pival and her traveling companions, Satya and Rebecca.

Satya is the woefully unqualified Bangladeshi immigrant assigned as Pival’s guide by the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. Rebecca is the struggling actress hired as Pival’s companion — for modesty’s sake — so she is not forced to be alone with her male guide.

Franqui is a playwright and has a natural ear for snappy dialogue. She does an impressive job negotiating the trio, as well as a slew of minor characters who drift in and out of the narrative. If it weren’t for the peripatetic nature of the story, it would be easy to see how several set scenes could work on the stage.

Once the mismatched travelers get on the road, assumptions based on class, gender and ethnicity arise and are confronted. To say this is a feel-good story would be denigrating because it is better than that. But in a way it’s exactly the kind of story that we could use right now — people of different backgrounds coming together and realizing that they are more similar than assumed.

The only real criticism, if you could call it that, is that it’s over too fast. While you probably wouldn’t want to actually travel with Pival or her companions, reading about their journey is great fun.