Patel, Neel. Tell Me How to Be. 2021. $26.99. 336 p. HC. 978250184979
Akash is making the trip back to his family home, which his mother just told him she has sold, for the anniversary of his father’s death and the puja (Hindu prayer) that will be performed in his honor. If he happens to run into the first boy who broke his heart, perhaps he will attain the closure he needs to commit to his current boyfriend. Renu sold the house to move to London, tired of living in the consequences of settling for an arranged marriage to her late husband. Both mother and son spend their days thinking about the men they’ve loved and lost – the men they’re always kind of looking for.
Neel Patel’s debut novel revolves around the mother-son relationship, the role and reality of motherhood, and the knowledge that expectation and outcome are strange bedfellows. “My mother always told me to be a good boy. I suspect she knew that I wasn’t,” the book begins, already establishing a bond and a distance between Renu and Akash. This is a story which hinges on the miscommunication and non-communication that happens within families; mother and son narrate their story not to each other but to their respective first loves, leaving the reader to see the similarities between them even as they struggle to find a common ground with one another.
Reading Tell Me How to Be is like watching two dancers circle each other, knowing that though they are positioned on opposite sides of the stage, they hear the same music. Sometimes, in reading, the music is literal. Patel doesn’t only give us the means to watch Akash and Renu, but to listen in on them as well, through the nineties R&B which they reference as the soundtrack to particularly vivid memories. Patel links music and memory close together, creating a tension between them through Akash, an aspiring song-writer struggling to write through his visit home. Akash’s efforts ask of us how we create new memories, with the echoes of the past still thudding in our heads.
Readers who enjoyed Nadia Hashimi’s Sparks Like Stars and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections will enjoy similar complicated family dynamics and needing to read between the lines of what is being said to get at what is meant. Highly recommend to anyone keeping secrets from their families.
Nadia M Orozco-Sahi, MLIS