Meddelin “Meddy” Chan is the photographer for the family’s wedding business. She works with her mom and three aunts: Big Aunt the baker, Second Aunt the hair and makeup artist, her mom the florist, and Fourth Aunt the D-list wedding singer. Their tagline is “Don’t leave your big day to chance, leave it to the Chans!”
Of course, the odds are scattered to the winds when Meddy’s blind date makes a pass at her and she ends up accidentally killing him the night before the biggest wedding of the season.
This irresistible hook is what sucks you straight into the hurricane of Jesse Q. Sutanto’s debut novel, Dial A for Aunties!
I will confess I didn’t read the synopsis before I started this book; I just saw the main character was Asian and had four overbearing mom figures, and I thought, okay, cool, that sounds like home. And then a few pages in, they were stuffing a dead body into the trunk of a car, and I thought, okay, that sounds a little less like home!
Once the wedding starts, it’s like Crazy Rich Asians—but with a dumping-a-dead-body twist! The middle chapters are rich with descriptions of Chinese-Indonesian wedding customs, blown up to lavish, filthy rich proportions. (Though, like Meddy, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t stressing about the corpse in the cooler.)
Woven in between Meddy and her family’s struggle to hide the body while fulfilling wedding duties are their run-ins with other colourful characters: the bride, who is totally sweet; the groom, who is a total sleaze; the catty maid of honour; and Nathan, Meddy’s ex, who’s thinking this wedding might be the perfect time for them to discuss how their relationship went down.
All of this adds up to a glorious, relentlessly-paced, impossible-to-look-away-from train wreck. Sutanto is ruthlessly adept at building tension. As the book progresses, she lines up one stressful thing after another—Meddy hides the corpse, puts out a wedding-related fire, mediates a squabble between her aunts, then it’s back to hiding the corpse again! If this was a movie, I’d have been watching it with my hands over my eyes.
(Spoiler: It is actually going to be a Netflix movie, and I’m so going to be here for it.)
At this juncture, we need a mandatory disclaimer emphasising how the Filipino experience shouldn’t be conflated with Indonesian culture. One of the biggest challenges Asian voices have when breaking out into the mainstream is getting the Western world to understand that East Asia is not the same as Southeast Asia, and that Southeast Asian cultures are not one big blob of the same people.
But Dial A for Aunties still feels familiar: the complex family dynamics, the respect (and sometimes co-dependence) on elders, the hesitation to move out from home as an adult. Though Filipino culture is not one and the same as Indonesian or Chinese culture, it’s still refreshing to see these themes—so close to our everyday lives—play out in a mainstream story.
Also, perhaps my favourite aspect of this book is its portrayal of a female-led Asian family. Hell hath no fury like an Asian matriarch!
In Meddy’s family, she hears her aunts talk about the “curse” that made their husbands leave. But as the story progresses, we learn that the curse is not actually rooted in magic or superstition—merely the age-old story that men systematically fail their families, and women take the lead, band together, and get closer to each other as a result. Beneath the four sisters’ persistent, petty rivalries are inviolable, lifelong bonds.
A light-hearted story centered around Asian culture and characters suddenly seems more important now, especially given the surge of hate crimes against Asians in the West. While a rom-com murder mystery book cannot fix violence against Asian people, another voice joining the ranks of Asian storytellers affirms the fact that we are here, we have value to contribute, and we are humans with vibrant imaginations and stories to tell.
Dial A for Aunties is a perfect quirky romp to escape to, given the madness of real life. Of course, you’ve got to recognise that this specific string of events is unlikely to ever happen for reals, but once you suspend disbelief, it’s just pure, outrageous fun!
Read this book in one sitting over the weekend, but be warned: it’s bound to make you miss big, obnoxious reunions with your family, or anyone you’d call to bury the body with.