All in the Family

In Tell Me How to Be, Neel Patel tracks the distance between a mother and a son.

neel patel
Bradford Rogne

Winning people over is easy,” Neel Patel writes in Tell Me How to Be. “All it takes is the betrayal of everything you are.” The sentiment belongs to Akash, one of two narrators in this debut novel. (Patel is also the author of the short fiction collection If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.) Akash knows from betrayal—as a younger man, he turned his back on his best friend; as an aspiring songwriter in Los Angeles, he’s been less than faithful to his loving boyfriend, Jacob.

But the real victim of Akash’s betrayal is Akash. He’s turned self-defeating behavior into an art form, with the help of the alcohol he finds it impossible to resist. He’s a devotee of R&B, although its lessons don’t quite stick with him. Even as he name-checks TLC, his life has been one long exercise in chasing waterfalls.

Yet if this can make Akash a difficult character, in Patel’s hands, he’s also quite compelling. Tell Me How to Be is an exquisite book, one that explores how people can come to terms with the present even when part of them refuses to leave the past.

As the novel opens, Akash is unemployed, in debt, able to sustain himself only because of Jacob’s largesse. Jacob, meanwhile, is concerned with Akash’s binge drinking but clearly loves him. If Akash resents his boyfriend’s friend group (“a bunch of white queens in rompers making snide remarks”), he appreciates his stability. “I was tired of swimming,” Akash acknowledges, “and there was Jacob, waiting for me to latch on.”

Akash is due to visit his mother, Renu, in Illinois; she’s holding a puja, a Hindu ceremony, to commemorate the first anniversary of his father’s death. Although she is planning to move to London, Akash has no intention to include Jacob in the visit; he’s never come out to his family, and his relationship with his mother and his brother, Bijal, is fraught.

The novel switches points of view between Akash and Renu, who is eager to leave Illinois. An Indian Tanzanian, she moved to the United States for her husband, Ashok; she’s never been comfortable in “this place with its cornfields and strip malls and Chinese restaurants named after feelings I have rarely felt—Happy, Lucky, Joy.”

At the same time, Renu is keeping a secret. She married Ashok to appease her parents, but the real love of her life is Kareem, a Muslim man for whom she’s carried a torch that has never quite gone out. Akash is in a similar situation: as a teenager, he fell in love with his best friend, Parth.

Tell Me How to Be follows Akash and Renu as they try, or pretend to try, to make peace, if not with themselves then with each other, perhaps hoping they can do so while still concealing large parts of their own lives. Their attempts to accomplish this keep missing, of course—they’re doomed to do so—which Patel illustrates with the novel’s idiosyncratic structure: the narration switches back and forth with short chapters that give the book a staccato pacing and highlight the characters’ differences, not quite irreconcilable but veering dangerously close.

Both narrative lines unfold in the present tense, which suggests not only an urgency, but also a kind of emotional improvisation that Akash and Renu find themselves unable to escape. These are people figuring things out as they go along, knowing their relationship is unsupportable but hoping for some deliverance anyway. Akash admits as much when he describes why he is avoiding Jacob’s texts and phone calls. “I still can’t bring myself to respond,” he reflects. “The life I left behind—the unpaid bills, the collections notices, Jacob’s calls—everything is trapped like ice on a window, visible: but unable to harm.”

Akash is haunted by trauma, and Patel does a beautiful job describing how he has been beaten down by his past. His reluctance to come out to his family is explained by a series of comments he can’t bring himself to forget: his mother, watching a commercial for Will & Grace, saying, “I’m glad I don’t have a son like that”; his brother, who sneers after Akash asks about a particular homophobic slur, “It’s a freak who fucks boys. You better not be one.”

Patel’s depiction of Renu is similarly memorable. Her late husband may not have been the love of her life, but she’s haunted by his loss, the grief complicated by her guilt. Ever since Ashok’s death, she’s felt rudderless and out of place, her only amusement soap operas, the over-the-topness of which delights her: “Such vile disrespect—I liked it. Before I moved to this country, I had assumed all American women were whores. I was wrong. Not all American women are whores. Only the ones on TV.”

Novels that deal with tragedy run the risk of becoming leaden, but Patel avoids that trap with thoughtful humor. In one scene, a friend of Renu’s counsels her on how to discuss a novel she hasn’t read in her mostly white book club. “Just talk about how grateful you are to be in America,” the friend suggests. “These whites love that stuff. Talk about how you were poor and had no food but now you’re in America where there’s tons of food! I’m going to say I had a pet goat.”

Such moments function not just on the obvious level—lightening the mood of a novel that deals with profound emotional pain—but also lend the book a heightened sense of realism. Even the worst moments of our lives can be marked by a humorous absurdity, and Patel understands this.

Actually, he understands quite a bit. Tell Me How to Be is a quietly wise novel, a love song to families, however imperfect they may be, as well as a tender and fierce celebration of queerness. It’s a lot of books in one, and each one is a knockout.•

Flatiron Books


Flatiron Books

Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR.
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