When wealthy philanthropist Dava Shastri learns she has terminal cancer, she decides to die by medically assisted suicide. She plans the procedure for the holidays, when she’ll be surrounded by her children and grandchildren at her remote island home during a snowstorm. She also leaks the news of her death early, so she can see for herself how much good her foundation has done for the world.
Unfortunately, the news is instead dominated by rumours of a long-ago affair with a musician who’d written a song dedicated to her. As Dava faces her final hours, and her children and grandchildren are forced to grapple with their complex feelings around her death and their respective futures, all of them must also deal with the rumours that have surfaced, and with secrets Dava has kept hidden all her life.
There’s much to love about this novel. Dava is a formidable woman — inspired by Rockefeller’s biography, and determined never to be defined as the wife of a powerful man, she tells her husband Arvid straight-up that she aims to take over the world, and she needs a husband who’s satisfied with taking on the role of wife. Arvid readily agrees to let his career take a backseat to hers, and to take a larger role in caring for the kids and the household, and so Dava launches a powerful business empire with charitable foundations that give grants to emerging musicians and to grassroots non-profits that do good for their communities. The story is set in the 2040s, which puts Dava’s flashbacks at our present day, and honestly, if Dava were real, I could see myself reading her business books or signing up for her Masterclass. She’s a badass woman and an inspiration. Any young woman would be lucky to have such a mentor, and the thought of a South Asian woman — especially a dark-skinned one who was once mistaken for her lighter-skinned children’s nanny — reaching such heights in present-day America is absolutely mind-blowing. Yes please, may it be so.
Like many powerful figures, however, Dava is somewhat less successful in her relationships with her children. Some of the most moving, most heartbreaking moments in the novel are the contrasts between Dava’s realizations of where she fell short as a mother — for example, her therapist observing that Dava thinks of her children more as employees than as family — and the beautiful bits of loving memories that sprinkle through — for example, the “free happiness” of Dava and her youngest son singing together in the kitchen. Alongside her children’s resentment at being semi-forced into continuing Dava’s businesses for their careers, is the heart-wrenching realization by Dava herself that she displayed more warmth towards a young woman she’s mentoring whom she’d met as an adult, than towards the young men and women she’d raised from birth.
A more traditional novel would have set the story after Dava’s death. It would also be heartfelt, in that the various children would still have to deal with the loss of their mother, and the fallout of the rumours surrounding her death. But I think it also would have been more lighthearted, and more tied to the soap opera-ish hook of long-held family secrets now come to light.
Ramisetti chooses to set her story in the hours leading up to Dava’s death, and in so doing, casts a pallor of melancholy over the entire affair. This is a beautiful, well-crafted book, but by no means an easy one. I would highly recommend NOT reading it during a vacation or a holiday when you just want to relax. The Shastri-Persson family grapples with inescapable grief the entire time they’re together on Beatrix Island, and the reader has to work through this grief right alongside them. The novel gets slow at times — despite the big mysteries Dava’s family tries to solve about her past, most of the answers are fairly easy to guess for the reader, and as a result, some of the flashbacks and present-day conversations just feel too drawn out.
That being said, the novel really hits its stride maybe about two-thirds of the way through, when Sandi, Dava’s newest daughter-in-law, takes the grandchildren to Dava’s room to spend her final night with her. Dava offers each grandchild — including Sandi as a stand-in for the future grandchild still in her womb — the chance to ask her just one question, which she’ll answer honestly on the condition that the answers never leave the room. Thanks to this plot device, we finally get the truth about the musician and other details related to the alleged affair, but more importantly, the plot device also allows Dava to open up to her grandchildren in a way she’d never quite managed with her own children. It’s a beautiful, cathartic, and heart-wrenching series of chapters that lead us, inevitably, to the end. The scene where Dava takes her last meal, and the grandchildren and children try to find just the right soundtrack for the occasion, just about brought me to tears.
Dava Shastri’s Last Day starts off slow, but it builds up to being an absolute tearjerker of a novel. I’m not sure how I feel about it overall — I think parts could have been tightened, and some repetitions could have been cut out. And ultimately, I just find it too depressing a read to want to put myself through it again. Still, Ramisetti succeeds in creating a memorable character in Dava Shastri, and in taking readers along on a truly emotional ride.
Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.