It Takes a Village

How a murder mystery inspired me to grow my community.

It Takes a Village

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I, a person in my late 30s, have recently started to ruminate on mortality. Between family health scares and some recurring physical concerns of my own, I’ve lately been facing down the tough questions: What does it all mean? Are we in control of our own lives? And most salient: When did I start to groan every time I sit down or stand up?

Aside from the inevitable bodily woes, one of the things I think about most is what my community will look like when I’m older. I am lucky to still have both my parents, as well as a large, if far-flung, family, which I can call on in times of need. But as I age, I know that will change. Is it possible, I sometimes wonder, that I’ll end up lonelier and lonelier as I age?

Then I met Vera Wong, protagonist of Jesse Q. Sutanto’s Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers. She’s an elderly woman who discovers a dead body in her “world famous” Chinese tea house and, with characteristic brio, decides to decode the mystery herself. But despite her determination and zest for life, Vera is lonely: She is a widow, and her contentious relationship with her son consists of her texting him every morning to remind him to get up by 4:30 a.m.

When Vera decides the people who start turning up at the tea shop after the man’s death are suspects in what she considers his murder, it’s hard to imagine they’ll become her friends. Along with Riki, Sana, Oliver, and Julia, I questioned Vera’s intentions, her goals, her very sanity (who outlines a dead body in Sharpie before the police even show up?).

But Vera has some advantages her younger counterparts lack, most importantly the confidence that Vera Always Knows Best. And because this is a novel and not real life, Vera’s meddling almost always turns out well in the end, despite her sometimes-egregious overstepping (a day after the discovery of the dead man, Vera visits his widow, Julia, and obliquely suggests Julia might’ve had a hand in her husband’s death).

Exaggerated circumstances aside, I learned a lot from Vera. I don’t actually want to take charge of a murder investigation (or other people’s lives), but it probably wouldn’t hurt me to be a bit more confident and adventurous. And I’d love to be able to cook as well as Vera does.

When I was a teen, I had a narrow-minded concept of “adventure” — usually, it involved danger or grand gestures or being phenomenally irresponsible. As I age, however, I’ve learned to redefine the word to mean anything that pushes my boundaries or feels hard. In the aftermath of the pandemic, I’ve shifted toward building community: taking advantage of opportunities in the writing world, taking a job at a nursery school, seeking out ways to volunteer with like-minded folks. Like Vera, I’m learning that building community also means allowing people into my life — sharing my fears and celebrating my successes with them.

Throughout these minor adventures, I’ve felt my fears about ending up alone lessen, like letting a little air out of an overfilled balloon. There are so many ways to cultivate connections — including, if Vera is any model, by leading an unauthorized murder investigation! While I doubt I’ll go quite that far, I will continue to reach out to those around me and make sure they know how much I value them and the sense of community they bring to my life.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus