Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
It is rare that one embarks on a review by advising readers where and how to sit while reading the novel in question. However, in the case of Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Sutanto, I feel obliged to impart exactly that information.
Do not read while on a train, bus, boat, or airliner. Do not read during the long haul wait experienced in most doctors’ surgeries. Do not read while sitting on a park bench while half-heartily watching a small child feed the ducks. The best position is to lie on a well-made bed that provides plenty of room to roll around howling with laughter. This novel is hilarious!
Dial A for Aunties is a cross-cultural comedic farce. It is written from the first person perspective of Meddy, who is captive to Asian culture regarding respect for elders and loyalty to her nearest and dearest. She must defer to the four sisters in a family that is devoid of men, the lack of which is explained as a family curse. One of the sisters is her mother, Ma, and then there is Big Aunt, Second Aunt and Fourth Aunt. Big Aunt, as the eldest, holds authority over her sisters. Big Aunt has a combative relationship with Second Aunt, and Meddy’s mother is constantly in competition with Fourth Aunt. Although having immigrated to San Gabriel, California, the four sisters are firmly rooted in their Chinese and Indonesian cultural norms. They speak a medley of Mandarin, Cantonese, Indonesian and English. Much to her mother’s disappointment, Meddy is only fluent in English.
Weaving through the plot, there is the romantic history of Meddy and Nathan. They have broken up but Nathan is the love of Meddy’s life, and of course he is (unrealistically) Prince Charming on steroids.
Jesse Sutanto skillfully utilizes the competitive nature of the Aunts’ relationship, language confusion, rigid observance of cultural rules, and how emoji symbolism, employed by Meddy’s generation, bewilders the Aunts, to provide readers with a funny and refreshing read.
If Meddy had told Ma about Nathan, then Ma would not have ‘cat-fished’ Jake to set up a blind date for Meddy, and Meddy would not have accidentally killed him, and the Aunts would not have put his body in the freezer … and the wedding they were organizing, would not have ended in pandemonium. Seriously, you had to be there!
The success of this book rests on illustrating a family’s love and loyalty to one another within a set of unbending cultural rules, while responding to an outrageously absurd scenario. Cross-cultural, cross-generational, and language misunderstandings are used to great comedic effect.
Regardless of the entertainment value, readers do begin to understand family life through different cultural eyes, how identity is shaped via culture. Meddy struggles to be in a loving relationship with her mother and aunts, while discovering her own strengths, realizing who she is as an individual.
Netflix has already snapped-up Dial A for Aunties, but I urge reader not to wait. Read the book and later enjoy it as a movie, because, to reiterate – this romp of a novel is riotously funny.
By Jesse Sutanto
Harper Collins Publishers Australia
ISBN 97 80008 445850