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Tell Me How to Be


Tell Me How to Be

Acclaimed short story author Neel Patel’s debut novel, TELL ME HOW TO BE, is a wise, witty and emotionally resonant story of a mother and son learning how to exist alongside one another, within their complicated family and in the world at large.

One year ago, the Amins lost their patriarch, Ashok. Since then, his wife, Renu, and her two sons, Akash and Bijal, have existed mostly on the outskirts of one another’s lives. Renu has given up on appearing perfectly dressed and made up at all times, slaving over lavish meals and maintaining her large, stylish home in favor of takeout, soap operas and wine-fueled book club meetings. Akash, a budding songwriter, traded one man for another, losing his father but gaining Jacob, his first real, steady boyfriend who offers him a life of stability and support. Bijal has turned his focus entirely on his white wife, Jessica, who threatens Renu’s careful hold over her family and their culture and traditions.

"TELL ME HOW TO BE is a glimmering gift of a novel. Patel is an incredibly wise and poignant writer, but also one for whom storytelling seems almost supernaturally easy."

In preparation for an anniversary celebration of Ashok, Renu informs her sons that their childhood home is on the market and she will be moving to London when the sale is complete. The young men are shocked, but neither can say they have made much room for Renu in their lives; even if they had, there is too much tension where Akash is concerned. Raised in competition with his older, perfect brother, Akash has long lived in Bijal's shadow, finding his parents’ spotlight turned on him only at his worst moments: failing to gain entry to an elite school, dropping out of college and a wildly out-of-control problem with alcohol. As Akash and Bijal return to Renu’s home to remember their father and sort through the messy sentiments of their youth and upbringing, Akash and Renu recognize that they finally must confront the secrets that have kept them separate from their family, and from their own true selves.

Written in short but vivid alternating chapters, Patel unpacks the old hurts, simmering resentments and tragic love stories of Akash and Renu. A closeted homosexual man, Akash has internalized his parents’ homophobia to the point of self-destruction, a hurt that only alcohol seems to soothe. Yet every time he drinks, he burns another bridge: first with his brother, then with his career, and now with his partner, a stable and secure white man who does not understand the difficulties he faces as a brown gay man. Akash’s only true passion is R&B music, but even that appears to be slipping through his fingers as his more talented friend seems to be outgrowing him and their collaborations. With his world threatening to crumble around him, Akash wonders how his life would have been different if not for the tragic and dramatic end to his first relationship with a boy.

Renu, meanwhile, is sick of watching her sons fight and disappoint her. She has turned her mind to another man entirely, Kareem, who she almost married before she met Ashok. As she prepares for the second greatest move of her life, one that will bring her back to the home she adored and the place where she discovered love for the first time, Renu begins a Facebook message to Kareem that throws her whole life into question. With both Akash and Renu digging deep into their pasts and how their choices --- and the choices of others --- have defined them, Patel highlights the ways they are uniquely similar, and how their unhappiness is mirrored in one another, making them blind to each other’s pain.

TELL ME HOW TO BE is a glimmering gift of a novel. Patel is an incredibly wise and poignant writer, but also one for whom storytelling seems almost supernaturally easy. Even as he probes deep subjects --- homophobia, racism, betrayal, grief --- he manages to infuse his prose with a lot of tenderness and a surprisingly irreverent sense of humor, adding much-needed levity to his plot while propelling the weighty narrative forward with gusto. The result is refreshingly authentic. Patel’s characters are terrifically relatable, not just a mother and son struggling with grief, but a mother and son who have lied to themselves for too long and now must come clean once and for all. What makes the book so special, though, is how Renu and Akash’s stories mirror, complement and push one another forward, a call-and-response duet that feels incredibly satisfying to read.

Full of complicated characters, messy family relationships, and celebrations of music and culture, TELL ME HOW TO BE is a memorable, vulnerable and deeply moving debut from a writer who makes it all look easy. I’ll be adding Patel’s story collection, IF YOU SEE ME, DON’T SAY HI, to my list immediately and auto-buying whatever he does next. You should, too.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 17, 2021

Tell Me How to Be
by Neel Patel

  • Publication Date: November 29, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250184983
  • ISBN-13: 9781250184986