Book Review: Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel

I loved this book. “Tell Me How to Be” by Neel Patel is the kind of book that you need to read cover to cover to fully appreciate. It doesn’t have chapters, but it switches between the points of view of Akash Amin, an Indian-American struggling songwriter, alcoholic and closeted gay man, and his mother, Renu, a sharp-tongued strong mama with secrets of her own who’s upending her life to move to London after her husband’s death.

This is one of those books that’s very hard to read because of the realism; both Akash and his mother struggle with their shame and guilt, but over very different truths, and obsess over it over the span of a week in 300 pages. They talk to their loves who got away in the second person as they are narrating this difficult time – in Renu’s case, a man in London who came from the wrong religion and the wrong class; for Akash, his first love, a boyhood crush whose friendship ended disastrously.

I do admittedly get tired of reading queer angst and trauma narratives; I was happy to finally find gay characters not written by straight women, but sometimes it seems like the only things that get published traditionally are narratives over the shame of queerness before the eventual redemption arc. But I forgave this one because the shame was deeply connected to cultural influences. However, I want to read more queer joy – characters who just so happen to be queer, who might struggle and deal with homophobia and are messy people, but they get happy endings, too. I wish we had more narratives like that.

However, all in all, this was beautifully written, and the way mother and son come together and pull apart throughout the book is very lyrically done. I loved the author’s writing style, the depictions of race in America and abroad and even how race can be differently perceived even in cultures that are considered “marginalized communities.” For example, the Indian-American community is not a monolith of people who all think alike and come from similar backgrounds, as is so often popularly portrayed.

Highly recommended for fans of beautiful prose and marginalized characters authentically portrayed.

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