Is freedom from perfectionism the only way to satisfaction? Debut author Cynthia Salaysay answers this and more in her jarring novel “Private Lessons.” With all the polish of a literary and the emotion of a classical musician, Salaysay weaves together a story so beautifully vulnerable it aches. She makes a day in the life of a high school Filipina pianist a portal into one of humanity’s greatest issues — the breaching of consent in the context of complicated power dynamics.
Salaysay delves into the ordinary material of a young woman’s quest to turn challenges into opportunities and presents a torrent of honesty and horror. “Private Lessons” is by no means an easy read; it is triggering in the most nuanced ways. These nuances, however, unveil a raw, unbridled example of how one young woman must scavenge for truth amid terror to find her place in the world.
Claire Alalay, Salaysay’s protagonist, is a perfectionist living with a sense of purpose far from perfect. Piano is Claire’s life, her escape from the shackles of poverty to the stages of prestigious competitions in Los Angeles. It is her ticket, not only into the college of her choice, but into the life of the charming yet cunning Paul Avon, the most desired piano teacher in the Bay Area. Claire works tirelessly, trying to impress Paul with her tonal musicality, and he does the same with his toxic masculinity.
As Claire navigates her quest for perfection, she loses pieces of herself in the process — the first of which, her innocence. The detail with which Salaysay creeps up on the tension between Claire and Paul is chilling. The way Claire falls victim to decisions that jeopardize her integrity is eerily similar to Edna’s transformation that Kate Chopin brought to life in “The Awakening” over a century ago.
Above all, it is a look at how passion, a starry-eyed word filled with endless possibilities and an enchanting façade of perfection, can be painful. How does it feel to chase after something you love only to eventually lose interest? How can your vulnerability transport you to victory when hard work is deemed more valuable? How can sexual abuse be blurred into a two-sided street by the same society that silences its survivors? Shedding convention and reeling after reality, Salaysay tackles these themes, cutting deep into wounds formed from love, loss and longing.
Salaysay’s book sheds light on an often ignored but increasingly prevalent epidemic — sexual violence. Calls to sexual violence hotlines have spiked during quarantine, yet these issues remain overlooked. Books like Salaysay’s are not only critical, but essential in these times when what happens in the home cannot so easily be escaped. Claire’s characterization is not just a voice, but a deep and troubling song for women, especially young women, who find themselves blinded by trust. “Private Lessons” brings to the surface the private epidemic of assault that is often tucked away into the darkest crevices of the world’s mind. It is the unfurling of one young woman’s revival written to be an awakening for society in these uniquely challenging and unforgiving times.