What’s new, folks? As a reader who gobbles up rom-coms, it isn’t often when I turn up one that entertains me with the dark comedy of something as morbid as covering up an accidental murder. This is exactly what Jesse Q. Sutanto (author of the young adult thriller The Obsession) expertly executes in her latest novel, Dial A for Aunties. It follows Meddelin “Meddy” Chan, who works as the photographer for her Chinese-Indonesian family’s wedding business and is accustomed to the headstrong and overbearing ways of her Ma and her aunts (who are simply called Big Aunt, Second Aunt, and Fourth Aunt, with Ma being their third sister). However, she isn’t prepared for the revelation that Ma has set her up with a hotelier named Jake by hopping on a dating app and passing herself off as Meddy. The situation doesn’t improve when Meddy finds Jake to be a complete boor. And then the situation plummets into hell once Jake starts to go rapey on her, forcing her to Taser him while he’s driving and resulting in a car accident that kills him. What does Meddy do under such circumstances? Why, she gets help from her Ma and aunties to get rid of the body, although it turns out to be difficult to accomplish this in the midst of the opulent wedding weekend that the family is handling.
TW: manslaughter and insinuation of sexual assault
It’s fitting that Dial A for Aunties has been promoted as a cross between Crazy Rich Asians and Weekend at Bernie’s. This is a hilarious dark comedy that sets the tone right away through the bright cover and the jacket copy, then fulfills its promise with farce that is highly evocative of soap operas, 90s rom-coms, and Frasier. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a rom-com, since the second chance romance between her and Nathan—her college boyfriend with whom she broke up years ago to let him move to New York for a business opportunity while she stuck with her family in Los Angeles and joined their newly launched wedding enterprise—serves as a subplot rather than the core of the story. It’s sweet and all as Meddy bumps into Nathan, who is now part owner of the lavish resort that’s hosting the wedding, and falls head over heels in love with him again. But I wish it could have been developed more deeply. While the book does include a few helpful flashbacks to bring us up to speed on their history and get us to root for them, the way that it accelerates the relationship arc and quickly resolves the conflicts makes the romance feel rushed, particularly during the moments when Nathan forgives Meddy implausibly fast.
The dynamic in which I’m most invested is the one concerning Meddy’s tremendously endearing family. You’ve got Big Aunt, who handles the cakes for the wedding company as the owner of a bakery and the former head pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta; Second Aunt, who oversees hair and makeup as the proprietor of her own salon; Ma, who manages the flowers as the head of a florist; and Fourth Aunt, who sings and performs as, according to her, a child prodigy who dropped her dream of making it big with her gorgeous voice so she could join her sisters in the relocation to California, or, according to Ma, a middling vocalist who pushed her relatives to move to California as a pointless ploy to achieve fame in Hollywood. Meddy’s father, uncles, and male cousins have all left at one point or another (a phenomenon that Meddy believes is due to a family curse), so readers get drawn into a matriarchal clan whose loud and bickering members thrum with a web of interconnected rivalries and are accomplished in their professional lives.
More importantly, they display a strong sense of familial loyalty, a quality so strong that they don’t hesitate to assist Meddy one bit when she comes to them with Jake’s corpse. It gets especially uproarious when the four sisters show themselves to be surprisingly calm and efficient at, well, burying the body; when Ma informs the aunts that Jake was dead by the time Meddy regained consciousness after the car crash, Meddy comments in her first-person present-tense POV (a perspective that’s perfect for immersing readers in the urgency and the wildness of the story), “None of my aunts seem surprised by this, which means Ma must have told them over the phone before they came, or maybe it means that MY FAMILY IS A BUNCH OF PSYCHOPATHS. I choose to go with the former.”
This very loyalty plays a significant role in the protagonist’s relationship to her kin. Meddy starts out feeling trapped in their wedding business and grappling with her fear of becoming a disappointment to her relatives, something with which many of us can identify. Then she flourishes throughout the story as she undergoes a self-identity arc, summoning the courage to make decisions for herself rather than for other people and rejecting the expectations that her relatives have heaped on her.
Another important aspect is the linguistic representation of the Chans as an immigrant family for whom, aside from Meddy, English isn’t their first language, with Fourth Aunt being the only one out of the four sisters who can speak fluent English. In the author’s note, Sutanto writes that she based the Chans off her own Chinese-Indonesian family, which “is technically trilingual, but each of the three languages we speak is broken in some way.” She goes on to write, “Some of the aunties in Dial A for Aunties speak the sort of broken English that my parents’ generation does. Their grasp of the English language is not a reflection of their intelligence, but a reflection of the sacrifice that they have made for us.” I personally believe the author succeeded at depicting the relatives in such a way so that it feels genuine and doesn’t fall prey to insensitive stereotypes.
The only gripes I have are with the aforementioned hurried approach to the love story and the times when the plot leans too hard into the slapstick. Granted, this is a novel that abounds with grim and comical gags, so you have to accept that going in. But there were a few occasions, particularly in the third act, that played out so broadly that they briefly took me out of the reading experience.
Make sure you pick up this book, because not only is Sutanto coming out with a sequel, but Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan is going to adapt Dial A for Aunties into a Netflix movie. I can’t wait to see the Chans be brought to life onscreen!
All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 80/100