Every so often, a book flows so seamlessly that you hardly notice you’re reading it; it feels more like you’re simply existing with the characters. Neel Patel’s gorgeous debut novel, Tell Me How to Be, is a book like that. An emotionally layered family saga about cultural identity, first love, grief and the power of second chances, it’s a painful, funny and ultimately redemptive story.
The novel unfolds through two perspectives. Akash is a gay Indian American man whose life is spiraling. His relationship with his white boyfriend is falling apart, his drinking is out of control, his career as a songwriter in Los Angeles isn’t going anywhere, and he’s not out to his family. Renu, his mother, is in the midst of a different kind of crisis. A year after her husband’s death, she decides to sell the family house and move back to London. She wants to regain the freedom she gave up when she married and came to America 30 years before. When Akash and his older brother, Bijal, return home to help Renu pack up the house, the secrets they’ve all been hiding from each other come to light.
Both Akash and Renu narrate in the second person. Akash speaks to his childhood friend Parth, while Renu directs her sections to Kareem, the Muslim man she fell in love with before getting married. As the book progresses, the profound impact that Parth and Kareem have had on Akash’s and Renu’s lives slowly becomes clear. It’s an elegant narrative device that never feels cliched or contrived. Instead, the parallels between Renu’s and Akash’s stories highlight the rift between mother and son and its origins. So much of this novel is about what parents and children don’t say to each other and the trauma that silence can cause. Akash and Renu are both lonely and unhappy; they wrestle separately with their ghosts, and then slowly find their way back to each other.
This is a rich story that’s as vivid and surprising as its characters. In addition to all the nuances of Renu and Akash’s complicated mother-son relationship, Patel explores sibling relationships, racism in small-town Illinois, first- and second-generation immigrant experiences, alcoholism and more. Renu is observant, bitingly funny and deeply caring. Akash is morose and impulsive; his pain often feels claustrophobic, while his love of music comes across as buoyant and joyful.
Tell Me How to Be is a contemporary family story that captures all the contradictions and challenges of 21st-century life. It’s a rare treat to watch Renu and Akash navigate such tumultuous change—and come out stronger on the other side.