Dava Shastri’s Last Day is a fascinating novel with a provocative premise. Dava Shastri, age 70, is dying and decides to fake her own death so that she can see what the obituaries will say about her before she goes. You see, Dava Shastri is famous. She is one of the wealthiest women in the world, having made a name for herself in the music industry and as a philanthropist. She has been focused on her legacy for much of her life and expects to read and watch stories about her generosity and the Dava Shastri Foundation, which will live on. She is annoyed to see that instead, news stories are focused on the Oscar-winning song “Dava” and rumors of a long-ago affair with the man who wrote and performed it. In her last days, Dava goes into damage control mode in an attempt to put the spin back where she wants it — on her legacy as a philanthropist.
The story begins in the future, at Christmas in the year 2044, on a private island off of the coast of NYC, where billionaire Dava Shastri has a state-of-the-art and environmentally responsible mansion. She has invited her four adult children and their families to join her for the holiday, making it clear that it will be a “tech-free” occasion. What the family learns after arrival, and by accident, is that Dava is dying and will be having an assisted suicide within a couple of days. The moratorium on use of electronic devices plus a snowstorm ensure that when the “news” hits of her death (which hasn’t yet happened), no one in the family will be able to spoil it with the truth and no outside eyes will be able to sneak in. Dava’s children are stunned that she is dying and that she has prematurely leaked the news of her death so that she can see how she will be remembered. But the surprises don’t end there. Dava has plans for all of her children, things she needs them to do so that when she dies, her legacy will be ensured as she wishes.
Kirthana Ramisetti tells this story from multiple viewpoints and different periods in time. Dava remembers her past, her upbringing in Arizona, her college days, and something that happened that has been a big secret until now. Each of her children, employed by her foundation, has their own memories and unique relationships with this impressive and aggravating woman. Ramisetti writes these characters so well; each one of them can be incredibly annoying and self-centered (especially Dava), but they are so much more than that. I initially thought I was going to end up hating certain people, but in the end, the humanity of each comes through.
Dava is an especially intriguing character because she is the one you could really find yourself loathing. She is hyper-focused on her legacy and wants to keep directing her children’s lives even after her death. She paid each of her children $100,000 to keep “Shastri” in their legal names and paid $500,000 for each grandchild that also had “Shastri” as part of their name. I liked the way Ramisetti slowly unfolded Dava’s past to show us how she got to where she is. Dava is a self-made woman and proud of her accomplishments. Why shouldn’t she be? Plenty of men are the same and we celebrate them and remember them for their talents and success. Dava reveres the Rockefeller family and wishes to turn the Shastri family into a similarly successful clan known for generosity, service and wealth. Much of Dava’s philanthropy has been devoted to supporting women, particularly those held back by poverty and abusive relationships, which is certainly admirable. It bothers her deeply that women are often the footnote to a man’s success, that someone like her own mother, who volunteered at a women’s shelter, will never be known but the wife of a successful man will be simply for being his wife. Dava is a sharp and confident business woman who does not want a spouse or family to hold her back. At one point she tells her husband that she needs him to be her “wife,” which he readily agrees to. She also wrote in an unpublished essay that
…I never wanted kids. I wanted children. Children who are a reflection of their parents’ values while becoming individuals shaped by their own interest. I wanted to create good people who would make the world a better place.
Dava is a complicated person. She is smart, generous, a fierce advocate for artists and women, but also self-centered and controlling. She has physical and emotional pains that she has carried alone, and she can cause pain for those close to her in the name of the greater good or just for selfish reasons. While we know how things are going to end for Dava, it’s her children’s (and grandchildren’s) responses to her requests and her death that are ultimately the best part of this story.