JENNY SHANK Tribune of stars
“Tell Me How to Be” by Neel Patel, Flatiron Books, 304 pages, $26.99.
“My mother always told me to be a good boy. I suspect she knew I wasn’t,” says Akash Amin at the start of Neel Patel’s novel “Tell Me How to Be.”
This melancholic drama is structured as a first-person duet between narrators Renu and Akash Amin, a mother and son who have sung to each other their entire lives. Fittingly, Renu and Akash don’t address each other, but each speaks instead of a long-awaited “you,” a lifelong connection, loved and missed, the details of which Patel gradually reveals.
Akash is 28, lives in Los Angeles, trying to break into songwriting. His father warned him never to tell his mother he’s gay, and although living inauthentically with his family has warped Akash in pain and contributed to his alcoholism, he keeps that promise. “Tell Me How to Be” is a book full of nostalgia and regret, like the R&B ballads Akash strives to create.
Renu summons Akash and his eldest son Bijal to his lavish home in suburban Illinois to commemorate the one year anniversary of their father Ashok’s death and to clear the house so she can sell it and move to London.
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Renu grew up in an Indian immigrant family in Tanzania before moving to London for college. There, her family arranged a marriage for her with Ashok, a brilliant man who became a successful doctor in Illinois. But Renu has a secret: she loved another man in London before Ashok, a Muslim named Kareem. Kareem’s desire made her unsatisfied. “I languished in this town with its Walmart and its Applebees,” she explains.
The three remaining members of the Amin family converge on the house at a time of personal crises that they have hidden from others. The secrets curdled Renu and Akash so that they would mock or use certain people who befriend them.
Broke Akash lives with a financially secure white boyfriend he’s cheating on, and Renu makes bitter jokes about soft targets in the Midwest — like the white women in his book group who call their favorite wine “Sauvi-B.”
In this moving and moody novel, Patel shows how Akash and Renu suffer from the impossibility of emotional honesty within their Indian immigrant community in the Midwest, its norms enforced by gossip and social rebuffs. There is an inherent forgiveness in the two-narrator structure of this novel, acknowledging that the people who have made life difficult for others are themselves under the weight of their own thwarted hopes.
Patel traces Akash and Renu’s separate, yet ultimately linked, quests to speak the truth, leave the bitterness behind, and finally become free.
Jenny Shank’s “Mixed Company” collection of stories won the George Garrett Fiction Award, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, and The Atlantic. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver.