Sometimes a flashy premise is a double-edged sword. The hook that catches the reader’s attention, and indeed might be what got the book published in the first place, can also lead to the book’s downfall if the author doesn’t do a good enough job of selling it. Such is the case with Dava Shastri’s Last Day. The title character is one of the world’s wealthiest self-made women and a celebrated philanthropist. When she finds out that she is dying, she arranges to have word of her death leaked early so she can see how the world reacts. Ensconced on her private island to celebrate a last Christmas with her children and grandchildren, she hopes to hash out some family business before her scheduled assisted suicide.
It’s a crazy thing to do of course, and there’s the rub. Ramisetti never convinces the reader that this action makes any sense for Dava Shastri, or anyone for that matter. As soon as reports of her death start to circulate, Dava’s family find out immediately despite her edict for a phone- and device-free holiday, and their justifiable anger proves the foolishness of her plan. It’s an uphill battle for Ramisetti to prove that her protagonist isn’t a fool, and she never quite gets there.
Dava’s four children, their partners and their children are less characters than they are character-types. Their inner lives remain largely unexplored. Instead they are defined largely in terms of their relationships to one another, their identities, and in many cases their pop culture preferences. Sibling dynamics are a key element of any family novel, but here the conflicts between Dava’s children seem fairly tame and unrelatable in light of their vast wealth. Similarly, Ramisetti has an admirable commitment to diversity, but it never seemed to really matter to the plot or to the characters themselves that they were all bi-racial and half the siblings were queer.
I didn’t know anything about Ramisetti while reading the novel, but when I learned that she was an entertainment reporter I wasn’t surprised. Dava Shastri and her relatives talk excessively about the pop culture that means the most to them, especially music. Dozens of artists are name-checked and there are even sections where Dava explains the meanings behind many of her favorite songs. Dava and her husband binge-watch Breaking Bad while their young children enjoy Wizards of Waverly Place, and there’s even a page-long description of the time Dava saw Hamilton.
Obviously, pop culture is quite meaningful to most of us, and it can be insightful to learn what kinds of music, movies, and television shows a person responds to. But Ramisetti focuses on this stuff to such an extent that it feels like she’s trying to craft a personality out of a Spotify playlist, rather than the reverse. A person’s favorite song can say a lot about them, but it can’t say everything.
The characters in Dava Shastri’s Last Day just aren’t recognizably real enough for the reader to invest in them, and the outlandish premise stiff-arms the reader from the start.