Filipina American Protagonist Exudes Quiet Strength in PRIVATE LESSONS

Debut author succeeds in #OwnVoices authentic character study of a quietly rebellious, talented teen who battles unconscious bias and racism

Private Lessons
by Cynthia Salaysay

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 12, 2020 by Candlewick Press

After the death of her father, seventeen-year-old Claire Alalay devotes herself to music and to the demanding, charismatic piano teacher she idolizes, in the hopes of earning a college scholarship.

It’s not just playing when your heart is on the line.

From the publisher
Only music has helped Claire channel her grief. She likes herself best when she plays her father’s old piano, a welcome escape from the sadness – and her traditional Filipino mother’s prayer groups.

In a standout debut for the #MeToo era, Cynthia Salaysay composes a moving, beautifully written portrait of rigorous perfectionism, sexual awakening, and the challenges of self-acceptance. Timely and vital, Private Lessons delves into a complicated student/teacher relationship, as well as class and cultural differences, with honesty and grace.

What’s Different

A Filipino American protagonist! About time.

Not every young adult reader will enjoy serious, classical-music loving Claire in the type of novel a friend of mine calls “a slow build” (translation: quiet opening chapters) but I implore readers to stick with it.

What you’ll find is an authentic portrayal of grief, Filipino culture, the demands of budding career in music, first love (and lust), and a cautionary story about paying attention to red flags when navigating any type of relationship, from friendships to mentorships to relationships.

As someone who grew up in a working class, Filipino-Mexican-American family, I could identify with the clash of cultures. Her white, upper middle class friend, Julia, invites her over for dinner, and the clueless mother’s unconscious bias gives way to casual racism:

We had a cleaning lady once. She was Filipino. So nice. So hardworking, and so quiet, you barely knew she was around. She’d bend over backward for you, you know? Eager to please…”

No one acts like this is anything but normal, for Danielle to slice me open, as if I’m a cake, and pick around my insides. So I pretend it’s normal, too. Does she even know she’s insulting me? I keep my face a perfect blank. As blank and unreadable as an impeccable, quiet maid.

Claire and I have a lot in common: a Filipina mother who loves The Sound of Music (“which held some significance she never explained to me”), polite to pushy people who deserve to see a fang or two bared, and a youthful identity crisis caused in part by white people who think they know who she is solely on the basis of her physical appearance.

And I don’t even feel that Asian, whatever that means. I eat spaghetti sauce that comes in a jar. I know every brand of microwave pizza. We listen to sixties pop in the car. I don’t even speak Tagalog.”

Claire may be serious and studious, but she also has a sense of humor. When shopping at a department stores bra section, “I go back to the rack with the mesh one to try to find matching panties, but they’re all g-strings. Butt-cheek city.”

What’s Awesome

The author’s unique voice and vivid, musical prose. Cynthia Salaysay must be a pianist herself, or invested many hours of research. When Claire hears Philip Glass’ music performed for the first time, she describes his String Quartet No. 5 as though it’s a religious experience:

The cellist drives her bow with such force she sometimes comes off her seat. Impressions in a deluge: shards of water, crust cracks in the earth. Dust whorls. We’re plunged into a sad dream. Her bow shivers on the glinting strings, drawing slow, ragged tones, as if it’s lost its breath.”

Being a bit enamored of Glass’ oeuvre myself (don’t get me started on his under-appreciated original score for Broadway’s King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson, Ruth Wilson, and Elizabeth Marvel) I couldn’t help but be impressed.

I also enjoyed looking up all the classical music compositions Claire listens to so I could experience them while reading Salaysay’s fresh, creative descriptions of the music through Claire’s lens. This kicks up the novel reading experience to a different level:

“The piece isn’t impossible, but it almost is, with its death-defying, blind leaps of the left hand down the piano, notes toppling on top of each other like dominoes…half a choir sings through the fingers on one hand..I burn the music into the tendons of my wrists, the shapes of my fingers make it into memory, until it almost feels automatic.”

Brava, Cynthia Salaysay!

What Others Say

“An excellent coming of age story with believable characters and situations.” – School Library Journal starred review

“27 Novels Feminists Should Read in 2020” – BitchMedia

“Indie Booksellers Name the 20 Indies Introduce Debut Titles for Winter/Spring 2020” –

Author Bio

Cynthia Salaysay holds a bachelor’s degree in English from University of California, Berkeley, and has workshopped her fiction at Tin House. She has written food and culture articles for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the East Bay Express, and Civil Eats. She works as a Reiki practitioner and an operating-room nurse in Oakland, California. Private Lessons is her first novel.

(Note: I won an eARC [e-book Advanced Reader Copy] of this novel through Yallwest Book Festival in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Yallwest, NetGalley and Candlewick Press.)

This review was first published at

Katherine Valdez is an award-winning essayist and flash fiction author who believes in book reviews that don’t spoil the plot, writing what you like, and chicken adobo over steamed rice with a side of pancit and leche flan. (She has a sweet tooth.)

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#PrivateLessons #NetGalley #CandlewickPress #CynthiaSalaysay

Professional Reader


    • You’re welcome, Pat! Glad to hear it. Let me know what you think. I’m discovering the world of NetGalley and excited to check out another YA title that will be published later this year. Thanks for commenting!

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