Review | Private Lessons, Cynthia Salaysay

PrivateLessonsCoverPrivate Lessons is not at all an easy read, but it’s done really, really well.

(TW: grooming, rape, death of a parent, racism, casual mention of off-page animal death)

Claire Alalay is a 17-year-old piano player who takes lessons from the charismatic and talented Paul Avon. The blurb says it’s a book for the #MeToo era, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Paul does something unforgiveable.

I’ll be delving deeply into how well Salaysay treats the #MeToo stuff, so first, I want to say that I also really like how Salaysay explored the casual racism and sexism Claire and other BIPOC characters experience. I especially love a scene at a music competition where a white man asks Claire, her mom, and Claire’s Vietnamese-American BFF Tash what their nationality is, because it was so realistic. I especially love the little details that make it especially realistic: how the man assumes the three Asian-Americans are part of the same family and is shocked that Tash isn’t Filipino-American; how Claire’s mom doesn’t know how to respond and so just giggles nervously; how Claire’s white BFF Julia is totally oblivious of what’s happening; how the man has no idea how to respond when the question is turned back on him, and especially, how this isn’t the first time in the story that someone asks Claire this question. Having been asked that question many times myself, I can attest that this scene felt incredibly nuanced and real, and I love how Salaysay wrote it.

There’s also Julia’s perception of Claire’s looks, which again Salaysay handles so subtly that it’s hard to tell whether Julia is somewhat jealous of Claire’s looks because she genuinely thinks Claire is pretty, or if Julia is also somewhat being racist and fetishizing Claire’s Asian-ness. Salaysay kinda blurs the line on this several times, with just-subtle-enough comments from Julia that it makes you a bit uncomfortable, but also, maybe you’re imagining things? There’s a particularly gross moment after Julia learns about the #MeToo stuff, where she outright tells Claire “You’re very sensual. Asian girls. Men kind of slobber all over them.” This was said somewhat within the context of Julia saying Paul’s behaviour was “disturbing” and so could be read as an indictment of Paul’s possible Asian fetish, but it’s also equally possible that Julia believes that Asian girls are “sensual”, in which case, how much of a friend is Julia, really, to Claire? Either way, Salaysay handles this with just enough ambiguity that it’s difficult to label Julia as racist or otherwise, which again feels very realistic and true-to-life.

I also like how Salaysay depicted Claire’s mom’s grief (and possible depression) over Claire’s dad’s passing. Again, it’s the subtle details that Salaysay gets right that makes this work: how Claire’s mom can spend an entire day in bed but then turn cheerful when a church friend comes over; how Claire’s mom turns to her faith for comfort and, for a long time, resists the idea of therapy; how Claire’s mom also finds moments of joy, like in eating a burger and fries with Claire from a drive-through. I love the subtle Filipinisms that make Claire’s mom real — how she says “don’t open the light” instead of “don’t turn on the light”; how she calls Claire “anak” as a term of endearment; how she has a bunch of Virgin Mary, Jesus, and saint statues around the house; how she says prayer is what gets her through; even how she responds when Claire says prayer doesn’t seem to be enough. I love how Salaysay has created Claire’s mom, and I love the relationship between mother and daughter.

Now on to the #MeToo stuff, which as I said, I think Salaysay handles really well. (Minor spoilers follow — nothing surprising, I think, if you’re familiar with the #MeToo movement, but if you want zero spoilers, just skip the rest of my review.)

There are unfortunately far too many possible permutations of #MeToo stories, and I think the one most people immediately think of are incidents when the perpetrator physically forces themselves on the victim, or the victim is drugged or incapacitated in some way.

Less well-known, yet equally horrific, are the more gradual scenarios, where the perpetrator grooms the victim in many subtle, hard-to-pinpoint ways. In this case, Paul is a very demanding teacher, who uses Claire’s admiration of him to push her sometimes to the point of physical injury (at one point, her wrist hurts from her practicing, and she thinks at least Paul will think she worked hard). He also touches her, ostensibly to adjust her position so her playing improves, and something the author does really well is keep the entire thing super subtle. We’re seeing the story from Claire’s POV, so like Claire, we can see all of Paul’s comments on her appearance, his overtures of friendship beyond their lessons, his subtle bits of emotional manipulation to keep her starving for his approval, etc, as potentially innocent, simply a demanding teacher pushing his student to do better. Yet because we’re also distanced from Claire’s situation, we can also feel the slight sheen of wrongness throughout, the slight twinge of something not being right, even though Paul has technically not yet done anything wrong.

Paul’s behaviour throughout the novel is a particularly insidious form of abuse, because it’s so hard to pinpoint exactly what he’s doing that’s wrong, yet we can already see how his behaviour is already starting to change Claire, and make her more dependent on his approval.

Something else that may also be easy to miss in conversations around #MeToo — and that Salaysay explores especially well in this novel — is how easy it is for #MeToo victims to feel complicit in what happens to them. Claire is undeniably attracted to Paul. With the particular #MeToo incident, she specifically sets out wanting Paul to kiss her. Salaysay takes us through Claire’s thoughts and emotions in this particular chapter with heartbreaking clarity, as things shift from giddiness over Paul’s attention to confusion, shame and guilt at how things turn out. In particular, when Paul shifts from tender contact to a more explicit, self-serving act, Salaysay’s language shifts as well. We are right with Claire when she realizes that Paul doesn’t care about her as she cares about him, and because of that, what she ends up doing for Paul feels dirty. There’s a point where Claire tries to back out, and Paul physically stops her from doing so, which I figure Salaysay included so it’s super crystal clear that what happened was criminal. But even without that moment, I think the wrongness in the entire scene felt heartbreakingly real. Salaysay also handled the fallout from the incident in a sensitive, all-too-realistic way.

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Thank you to Candlewick Press for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | 10 Things I Hate About Pinky, Sandhya Menon

10ThingsIHateAboutPinkyI’m a huge fan of Sandhya Menon’s contemporary YA romances. When Dimple Met Rishi and There’s Something About Sweetie are both sweet, frothy, utterly feel-good romances that also tackle issues around family relationships. 10 Things I Hate About Pinky reads a bit younger than the earlier novels, but otherwise fits right into that mold.

Pinky Kumar is a proud activist who resents that her mom views her only as a trouble-maker. When her family visits their beach house for the summer, Pinky finds herself unfavourably compared to her ‘perfect’ cousin Dolly, and unfairly accused of mischief she didn’t commit.

Enter Samir, a friend of Pinky’s friend Ashish (from There’s Something About Sweetie). Samir is everything Pinky’s parents want her to be — an aspiring lawyer who lives his life by the rules, plans out his daily schedule, and writes out lists for everything. When Samir’s summer internship falls through, Pinky invites him over to be her fake boyfriend. In exchange, Samir gets the opportunity to impress Pinky’s mom, a high-powered corporate attorney, and possibly gain himself an internship at the mom’s firm for the fall. Samir and Pinky are polar opposites personality-wise, but as they get to know each other better, sparks fly, and lots and lots of tender, fluffy, adorable feelings develop.

I love how Pinky and Samir’s relationship helps them both grow and confront their own personal shortcomings. For example, even though a lot of Pinky’s activism is for good causes, Samir rightly points out that she tends to present them to her parents in a very combative way, and that she doesn’t bother to tell them about all the thought and preparation she puts in before making a decision to take up a cause. Pinky’s parents therefore see her as a troublemaker not just because of their own biases about some of her choices, but also because Pinky herself seems to like presenting that persona. On the flip side, Pinky prompts Samir to question why list-making is so important to him, and how much his mom’s cancer journey has affected his approach to life.

Samir is a sweet hero, a classic Sandhya Menon cinnamon roll type who is oh-so-easy to fall in love with. He has his flaws as well, and I like how his relationship with Pinky forces him to examine why list-making is so important to him. I also love the background information about his mom, and how her cancer journey affected their relationship. I do wish Samir’s relationship with his mom was explored more — at the start of the book, Pinky called his mom overprotective, but we didn’t really get to see any of that develop later on. Samir makes a big life decision at the end of the book that he talks to his mom about, but that conversation takes place off-screen, and so I wish we’d seen a bit more of that relationship on the page.

And Pinky is a wonderfully complex, complicated heroine. I love that a lot of her activism in the novel is around animal welfare (a cause I personally care about), and I especially love that her activism is less about ‘doing the right thing’, and more about caring for particular persons/creatures. In one of my favourite plot threads, Pinky rescues a possum on the road whom she calls Drama Queen (DQ for short). DQ has an unfortunate tendency to play dead at the slightest hint of a threat, and Pinky worries this will make her vulnerable to predators. I love that despite the impulsiveness of the initial rescue, Pinky does due diligence in researching possum care, to give DQ the best care possible.

Later on, Pinky’s big cause is the butterfly habitat in the town, which is scheduled to be demolished to make space for a condo. I love that Pinky’s reason for fighting for the habitat is that she and her family have had lots of good memories there, and she wants to preserve those memories because of the contentious relationship she now has with her parents.

I also like that Pinky joins the protest already being organized by the town residents, rather than starting her own. Because her family visits the area only in the summer, I couldn’t help feeling that the town residents have more at stake than she does with the butterfly habitat issue. I’ve read YA books where teens from wealthy families save  a town while the year-round residents are mostly passive, so I love that Menon centres a town resident (a Black lesbian) as the leader of the protest, with Pinky supporting her efforts.

Mostly, I love that Pinky, thanks in part to her brainstorming with Samir, comes up with a reasonable alternative to destroying the butterfly habitat. Instead of just saying the condo developers must leave completely, she proposes a compromise that’ll protect the butterfly habitant while also keeping the jobs and the homes that the condo development would create. Her proposed solution is simple, elegant, and quite frankly, much more mature than I may have come up with as an adult, never mind at her age. 

I really love the subplot about Pinky and her mom, in particular how they learn to understand each other better over the course of the novel. I wish the story of the mom had been developed a bit more gradually and deeply, as I found her a really interesting character and I thought the resolution of their conflict felt abrupt.

Overall, 10 Things I Hate About Pinky is a fun, feel-good teen read, and Pinky and Samir are sweet characters who are adorable together.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Trouble with Hating You, Sajni Patel

TroubleWithHatingYouLiya Thakkar is a biochemical engineer who’s fending off her parents’ attempts to get her married. One evening, she shows up for what she thinks is a family dinner, only to find out that they’ve invited Jay Shah and his mother to meet with her about the possibility of marriage. Liya escapes… literally knocking Jay off his feet in an insta-hate meet-cute… and thinks the matter is settled. Except Jay also happens to be the lawyer hired to save her struggling company, and he’s angry at her rejection not just of him, but of his beloved mother.

The Trouble with Hating You is an enemies-to-lovers romance that explores how our pasts inform how we respond to the possibility of finding love. I absolutely love the complexity of the backstory around Liya’s family and community. I felt for Liya’s mother, who had subsumed her own desires to be the traditional obedient wife to her domineering, emotionally abusive husband. Without giving away spoilers, the story ends with a touch of hope for Liya’s mother, that isn’t quite the full 180 degree liberation I’d hoped for, but is at least both realistic and very much welcome.

I also felt for Liya, who is dealing with the widespread censure within her family’s community because of her lifestyle (she lives alone and away from her parents, she has sex outside of marriage, and so on). There’s also a traumatic incident in her past that makes it difficult for Liya to trust men, especially when her father blames her rather than the actual perpetrator for the incident. I felt for Liya, and for how difficult it must have been like for her to grow up while dealing with this experience and being unable to find support within her own family. I really liked her circle of friends, and I also liked how she warmed up to Jay’s mother before she even warmed up to Jay himself.

Jay also has a heartbreaking backstory — he blames himself for a family member’s death, and so tries to make up for his guilt by taking especially good care of his mother. I love this, because it shows how important family is to him. I especially love how Liya’s rejection hurt him not so much for himself, but rather because he could see how much it hurt his mother, and how much his mother blamed herself for whatever slight imperfection must have caused Liya to run away from them.

Jay is a sweet, super caring hero, who is patient with Liya’s prickliness towards him even before he learns the reason behind it. There’s a really heartwarming scene where he sees Liya working late in the lab, and voluntarily stays with her all night, cleaning test tubes and doing other menial tasks, just so she won’t be alone. This is before they even get together, which makes it especially sweet, and shows the kind of person Jay is.

Liya is a bit harder to connect with. I can understand her defensiveness given her backstory, and I can understand why her parents’ example makes her fight so hard against the possibility of getting married. I’m all for complicated heroines, and I can definitely respect her ambition and drive. The thing is, her prickliness often crossed the line to being downright mean, and past the halfway point, considering how sweet and kind Jay had been throughout the book, Liya’s continued prickliness towards him began to annoy me. It was hard for me to understand what Jay saw in her that made him continue to fall in love.

There’s also this moment where Liya, a manager who supervises a group of biochemical engineers, notices that her employees are slacking off. Instead of talking with them about it, perhaps feeling out if it’s the uncertainty of their company’s future that’s making them lose motivation, Liya instead stays overnight to do their work herself. When her employees come back the next morning and ask if this means she’ll be taking the day off, she responds that she’ll actually go back to doing her own work now that she’s done theirs. Liya’s rationale, which both Jay and the book seem to find admirable (her employees shape up after that), is that she wants to lead by example, and show her staff that she’s not above getting her own hands dirty with non-managerial work. Except this solution struck me as incredibly passive-aggressive, and honestly, if I were one of her employees, this would piss me off.

The story overall was entertaining, and, as I said, I really enjoyed all the complex plot threads about Liya and Jay’s families. The romance was both sweet and steamy, but didn’t quite hook me as much. I did like the ending, and how even after falling in love, Liya continued to keep her career a priority.

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Thank you to Forever Romance and Hachette Book Group Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.