Private Lessons | Cynthia Salaysay

Jan. 5, 2021

— Thank you to Cynthia Salaysay and NetGalley for providing me a copy to review! —

TW: Sexual assault, rape

In order to stand out on college applications, you have to set yourself apart from the rest, and trust me, I can totally relate. Cynthia Salaysay paints the unwinding story of Claire Alalay in her novel, Private Lessons. Claire decides she wants to take things to the next level and she looks into a private piano instructor, Paul Avon, who is completely out of her league and budget. Despite her current economic status — her living with her mother in Fremont — she books Paul, who’s all the way out in the city of San Francisco.

Claire is easily sweeped into Paul’s world, finding the shiny parts about the conservatory where he works and his house and his piano. It’s clear that she isn’t the only one who is swayed by Paul’s atmosphere; so is Julia, another student who Claire gets to know over the course of the book. As she also meets Lee from the conservatory, Claire’s feet are only starting to get dipped into murky waters.

When Claire starts tiptoeing around her mom so she can find ways to be with Lee and Julia, this is when she starts to slip into their world and forget who she is. Eventually, Claire gets too caught up in trying to please Paul that she gets herself into a situation that may not be comfortable for people to read. This is the pinnacle of the story and Claire begins to find her true self, taking what she has learned through her experiences with Paul, Julia, and Lee’s worlds and bringing it into her present-day self.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found Claire to be a strong character, despite all of her missteps. It’s evident that she is a hard worker because Claire initiated some very difficult decisions all on her own, such as seeking out Paul to be her piano instructor. While she did have her breaking point, it is important to know that she grew into her present-self with more courage and determination. Additionally, the characters around her prompted Claire to work harder and become better, and I liked that aspect of the story. Both Julia and Lee’s musical presences are both great in the sense that just through knowing them, Claire wanted to become a better musician. Despite all the good in the book, even the antagonist could be considered as a plus. Cynthia Salaylay pushes forward the notion that Paul Avon is a talented piano teacher who just wants to make his students better. Paul is likable, and that’s the point. Even though he grooms his students — and we only see Claire’s perspective, what else other students — he remains in business and in power. A character like Paul makes you wonder who else in our lives could and would get away with something like this. Overall, the story is fairly paced and continues to reel you in as Claire falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

There were some parts of the book that I did not like. I didn’t like the fact that the ending felt flat, especially with all of the build up to the climax. The collapse to the last part of the novel didn’t feel fully resolved. Claire’s confrontation with Paul was very quick and you could seriously blink and miss it. However, my biggest problem with the ending was the transition between Claire’s life including Paul, Julia, and Lee to her life without them was that it felt forced. The reader is almost immediately pushed back into Tash and Claire’s mother. Additionally, I got very annoyed with Claire when she essentially bossed around her mother during some parts of the story. Of course family dynamics are not black and white or cut and paste, but as a Filipino, I think Claire should have had more respect for her mother. Perhaps that’s the author’s intention though!

This book is unique because the world needs more stories that are pushing the envelope. Yes, it’s the story of another Bay Area kid who’s trying to get a piano teacher, big whoop. That’s true, but she’s Filipino. I honestly don’t remember the last time I read a book with a Filipina lead. In addition, this novel discusses the grooming and the #MeToo that people should keep their eyes out for. The more we bring things in that are uncomfortable, the more we need to make noise about it. Salaysay also covers topics like racism, rape, and death in this novel as the ambitious author that she is. I’m looking forward to more of Cynthia Salaysay, as Private Lessons is her debut novel. I am a fan of strong writers and Cynthia Salaysay is no exception!

I rate Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay an 8/10. This novel was published