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Dava Shastri's Last Day
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In this novel "full of music, magnetism, and familial obligation" (Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here) a dying billionaire matriarch leaks news of her death early so she can examine her legacy—a decision that horrifies her children and inadvertently exposes secrets she has spent a lifetime keeping.
Dava Shastri, one of the world's wealthiest women, has always lived with her sterling reputation in mind. A brain cancer diagnosis at the age of seventy, however, changes everything, and Dava decides to take her death—like all matters of her life—into her own hands.
Summoning her four adult children to her private island, she discloses shocking news: in addition to having a terminal illness, she has arranged for the news of her death to break early, so she can read her obituaries.
As someone who dedicated her life to the arts and the empowerment of women, Dava expects to read articles lauding her philanthropic work. Instead, her "death" reveals two devastating secrets, truths she thought she had buried forever.
And now the whole world knows, including her children.
In the time she has left, Dava must come to terms with the decisions that have led to this moment—and make peace with those closest to her before it's too late. Compassionately written and chock-full of humor and heart, this powerful novel examines public versus private legacy, the complexities of love, and the never-ending joys—and frustrations—of family.
Includes a Reading Group Guide.
A Good Morning America and Lilly Singh's Lilly Library Book Club pick
Most anticipated in fall 2021 by TIME, The Washington Post, Bustle, Goodreads, and Debutiful • An Indie Next Pick • A Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book for Fall/Winter 2021 • Longlisted for the 2021 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
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Dava Shastri, Dead at Seventy
Dava Shastri, renowned philanthropist, dead at 70
Dec. 26, 2044, 8:24 a.m.
NEW YORK—Dava Shastri, founder of the Dava Shastri Foundation, has died at age 70.
Shastri’s lawyer, Allen J. Ellingsworth, confirmed she died Friday from an undisclosed illness.
The philanthropist created the influential music platform Medici Artists before founding the women empowerment–oriented Dava Shastri Foundation in 2007.
Shastri’s husband, Arvid Persson, passed away at age 46 in 2020. She is survived by four children and four grandchildren.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Dava did not expect to howl with laughter after reading her obituary. But she had been lying awake in bed since dawn, alternating between giddiness and anxiety as she speculated how the story would break. So to see her death announced with a breaking news bulletin—the kind usually reserved for politicians and pop stars—overwhelmed her with delight.
She wanted the view from her master suite to reflect her victory: a smiling sun over the water, or the rare sight of a humpback whale breaking the waves in a magnificent splash. But the outside world remained a white shell, with Beatrix Island blanketed in ice as if enclosed in a snow globe. Even so, her joy could not be contained, and she clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. The sudden movement worsened her ever-present headache, and to distract from the pain, she returned to the article and focused on the word “influential.” Dava enlarged the obituary until “influential” was the only word left on the screen, and marveled at how smoothly she had been able to turn her plan into reality. “Easy peasy,” as her late husband, Arvid, would say.
The harder part would be explaining this to her family. She needed to tell them what was going on but wanted to savor her accomplishment a little longer. Their interweaving voices rose up from the first floor, mostly lamenting the weather. The whole East Coast is a shitshow. God, I need coffee. Next Christmas we’re going to Hawaii. Dava could pick out her children’s voices most clearly, having spent a lifetime listening to Arvie, Sita, Kali, and Rev tease and argue with each other.
Dava didn’t mind their noise. The chatter reminded her of a time before she was an empty nester, and provided a welcome contrast to her bedroom’s stillness. Designed to be an “oasis of no-tech tranquility,” the room was several shades of lavender, from the silk damask wallpaper to the limestone fireplace. The one exception was the king-size bed, one of only two hundred that existed in the entire world, a stupidly expensive cream puff of cashmere, silk, and cotton with real gold and silver threads stitched into the headboard. Dava felt tiny and adrift whenever she slept in it, since the bed rippled across half the room like an infinity pool. She had wanted her bedroom to feel like a refuge, but within its walls she instead felt like a queen whose subjects were planning to overthrow her.
The soft knock on the base of her skull persisted, so Dava put on her noise-canceling headphones. Though she enjoyed the Shastri-Persson clatter, she feared aggravating her headache. Wearing them reminded Dava of a vastly different climate, hot, sticky Arizona, lying on her twin mattress with her head happily stuck between headphones, the rest of the world silenced by music.
In an instant, her family’s cacophony dispersed into whiteout silence. Yet as much as she needed to guard against a migraine, the lack of noise instilled in her a low, humming anxiety threatening to explode into a panic attack. She hoped the sight of the obituary would help her calm down. But the tablet had disappeared somewhere in the layers of her plush bedding, so Dava snatched her BlackBerry off the nightstand instead. She pulled the covers over her head until every inch of daylight was obscured, then rolled the device’s trackball up and down with her thumb, which for her was akin to putting a damp towel on a feverish forehead. The ancient smartphone, with a crack in the left-hand corner and the letters on the keyboard faded from overuse, dated back to her Medici Artists years. Now, it only served one purpose: as a time machine.
A few months earlier, Dava had paid an exorbitant amount to have the device restored so she could access all of her and Arvid’s text messages. She had always thought of her life in cinematic terms, and the BlackBerry period, spanning a near decade at the start of the twenty-first century, was the sunny montage with a feel-good pop song that came right before the inevitable complication in the second act.
As her distress lessened with every thumb roll of the trackball, Dava gave herself permission to read her old text messages. Her brand as a philanthropist was built on progressivism, which she often summed up in interviews as “look forward and live forward.” Yet in her personal life, she was embarrassed by her bouts of sentimentality and likened them to hoarding: a shameful habit she strove to keep hidden from the rest of the world, especially her children.
As she had done with increasing frequency in the past month since her terminal diagnosis, Dava closed her eyes and scrolled through her texts, and then looked to see which part of her life she had landed on.
When will you be home? This was a common text to receive from her husband and no doubt the one he sent the most often during their marriage. So Dava scrolled again, as if she were playing her second-favorite childhood game show, Wheel of Fortune, hoping to land on a fabulous prize. Her second time out, she landed on the following message: I swear I saw Bono in line at Zabar’s. This is totally him, right? She couldn’t load the attached photo, but from what she could remember, he had photographed a man with flaming red hair, wraparound shades, and a leather jacket. Dava snorted when she saw her reply: No way. If Bono is a redhead, then I’m Julia Roberts. Arvid was always thinking he had spotted stars in their Upper West Side neighborhood, surreptitiously snapping their photos and sending them to Dava for confirmation. He had stopped his hunt when they started actually meeting celebrities as part of her work, first with Medici Artists and later with her foundation, and Dava had been a little sad her success deprived Arvid of his hobby and made encountering them a little less magical.
But it had never lost its magic for her. Because she had been able to work her way up from nothing into a rarefied circle, in which she was not gawking at the elite, but one of them. And the fruits of all that effort would mean her life, and her death, would have a genuine impact on the world.
She needed to see the obituary again. Dava stripped the bed of its covers, then took off her headphones so she would have all five senses to help her locate her tablet, which had ended up at the foot of the mattress. She climbed back into bed, switched on the device, and gazed at the word “influential” with fascination until the screen went dim. Is that how my life will end, she wondered, fading brightness and then a sudden cut to black? But she didn’t want to think about endings yet, the totality of it all. There were still words to read, words of praise about all she had achieved. The darkness on the other side of living could wait a little longer.
She had almost fallen asleep when she was startled by her bedroom door sharply swinging open. Arvie stood in her doorway.
“What the fuck, Mom? Why is the news saying you’re dead?”
A Strongly Marked Personality
I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.
Tuesday, December 23
(Three days earlier)
Sandi saw Beatrix Island rise out of the mists like some sort of fairyland, the kind discovered by sweet, red-cheeked children in old-timey novels. When her fiancé, Rev, had invited her to spend Christmas with his family, he had joked the Shastri-Persson compound looked like a ski chalet dropped into the middle of the ocean. He wasn’t wrong. As their motor yacht moved through the choppy currents, she was able to discern more details piece by piece: it was two stories, made of some kind of timber almost golden in hue, and it featured a grand, sloping roof and a balcony that extended the entire length of the second floor. The island itself seemed to be the size of several football fields, the perimeter dotted with wintry pines wrapped in Christmas lights as if they were candles on a birthday cake. She let out an awestruck laugh, her cheeks flushing when Rev’s arms encircled her waist.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he said into her ear, his stubbled chin on her shoulder. “Sometimes I forget.”
“How could you ever?” Sandi breathed, and wondered how her stomach still fluttered with excitement nearly one year into their relationship. “It’s…tremendous.” Even as she nestled deeper into Rev’s embrace and took scandalized pleasure that his tight hug revealed his excitement for her, she could feel Kali’s eyes on them.
As if she heard Sandi’s thoughts, Rev’s sister joined the pair at the ship’s bow, her patchouli-ish scent irritating Sandi’s nose. After standing beside them silently for a few moments, Kali said, “Home sweet home.”
In response, Rev let out a guffaw signaling this was an inside joke between the two youngest Shastri-Persson siblings. Sandi dug herself closer into Rev as she listened to the two of them reminisce about Christmases past, none of which had taken place at their current destination. After several minutes of their banter, she had the distinct feeling she was intruding upon them, even though Kali was the one who had entered into their cozy moment.
“I’ll be right back,” Sandi murmured as she disentangled herself from his grasp. Neither seemed to notice she had slipped away, only moving closer to each other and speaking in a conspiratorial tone that likely meant the two were gossiping about their older brother and sister. Sandi walked to the back of the cabin and sat down at the table in a huff, watching them together. Rev beamed at his older sister and teasingly pulled at her waist-length braid, intricately colored to resemble a peacock feather. In the presence of Kali, he was even more ferociously handsome than usual, a sun that became hotter and brighter, which she scarcely thought possible. She counted to 403 before allowing herself to rejoin them.
“They were going to war over a brownie!” Rev said, doubling over in laughter.
“I know!” Kali giggled. “But it was one of Anita’s chocolate-mint brownies, so I kind of get it.” Sandi was relieved she at least knew Anita had been their childhood nanny.
“Did Amma resolve it by having them write an essay about who deserved it more?”
“No, that was when Arvie and Sita both wanted her extra ticket to a Beyoncé concert. I can’t remember what happened with the brownie, but it was our last Christmas with Dad, so…”
The siblings dissolved into silence as the yacht continued to slice through the gray waters of Gardiners Bay, speeding to the island like a magnet unable to resist the pull of metal. After the cramped, bumpy train ride from New York City to East Hampton (“I wish she would have let us take the helicopter!” Kali had groaned), Sandi was pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the boat journey. She had been worried about seasickness prior to boarding, even after the yacht’s captain, a stout man with friendly eyebrows, reassured her “not a single passenger has ever tossed his cookies on my boat, and none ever will.” Sandi wished the captain’s garrulousness would draw Kali into conversation so she and Rev could have more time together, but even he was quiet now, the only noise coming from the motor powering the gleaming white ship eastward through the bay.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sandi noticed Kali open her mouth as if she was about to speak.
“So are we the first ones to arrive, or the last?” Sandi cut in brightly, hoping to bring Kali and Rev back into the present with her.
“We are the last,” Kali said, turning to face the island, which was now close enough that a Christmas tree could be seen sparkling in a massive window on the first floor.
“The gang’s all here,” Rev said with a snort, and the two were off laughing again, down their rabbit hole of private amusement. Sandi could not wait to get off the boat.
* * *
After she had accepted Rev’s invitation to spend Christmas at Beatrix Island, hugging him so swiftly she nearly nicked him with the knife she had been using to butter her toast, he forwarded her a message that had been sent by his mother to her four children.
“Amma’s very particular, especially when it comes to family time on the island,” he told her. “Just so you know what to expect.”
In the three weeks leading up to the holiday, Sandi reread it so often she nearly had it memorized, in particular, Dava’s admonition about technology:
As this is the first time in several years we’ll all be together for Christmas, I don’t want anyone to be distracted and off in separate corners. So you should know if you don’t leave your devices and gadgets at home, you must check them into a lockbox upon your arrival. You will, of course, have access to communication with the outside world, but at my discretion.
This is family time. If you fear getting bored, bring some books, playing cards, and whatever else you need to amuse you that doesn’t require an outlet, solar power, or a charging station. I trust you can also find enjoyment in each other’s company.
As they disembarked from the yacht and walked along the dock to the house, Sandi began to sweat underneath her heavy coat. She had been so cowed she had left her devices at home and instead packed two books—a memoir by a former First Lady turned human rights crusader, and a novel by a prize-winning female Indian author—purchased specifically for the trip. But as Sandi gazed up at the stately timber-framed mansion, she wished she could have brought a camera of some kind. How else would she prove she had been there?
They entered the house through a side entrance, which opened into a mudroom, where a long row of mahogany lockboxes indeed waited for them, as well as an enormous closet where they were meant to leave their coats and boots. Rev and Kali exchanged an eye roll as they deposited several devices into the wooden squares that had their names written on them. To her delight, Sandi saw she had her own lockbox under her fiancé’s. But she had nothing to place inside, and her face turned red from embarrassment.
“Wow, you listened!” Kali said as she unzipped her parka, revealing an emerald-green tunic with gold embellishments along the V-neck collar. Sandi sensed an undercurrent of mockery in her tone but was relieved when Kali added, “Amma will be impressed.”
After the trio shed their outer garments, boots, and what Rev had jokingly called their “hi-tech doodads,” Sandi followed them through the kitchen to the foyer and had to stifle a gasp. Before her was a massive, ornately carved staircase, a waterfall of deep oak hardwood that flowed stiffly from the second floor. She had never seen such a stairway before, which took up nearly the entire length of the foyer, the architectural version of a statement necklace drawing all attention to itself, and rightly so.
“Amma?” Kali called out.
At the top of the stairs stood a petite woman with sleek black hair that just touched her shoulders, save for the white streak framing her face. Dressed in a cashmere turtleneck and impeccably tailored trousers, Rev’s mother was even more elegant and intimidating in person than what Sandi had seen of her in photos. She reminded Sandi of a Disney villainess, the kind of character who makes the heroine seem dull in comparison. Sandi could not quite look at Dava as she made her way downstairs. Instead, she tilted her face toward the foyer’s magnificently arched ceiling, where a chandelier resembling silver fireworks watched her from up high.
“You’re here,” Dava said warmly, her gaze focused solely on her children. “Welcome.” Then, noticing Kali’s top, she added, “Someone’s raided my closet again.”
“Yes, but isn’t it festive?” Kali did a small twirl before engulfing her mother in a hug.
“My kurta looks lovely on you.” At first, Dava seemed to endure her daughter’s embrace, her expression strained before relaxing into a tentative smile. When she then turned toward Rev, she softened even more. “Hi, R—”
He picked her up off the floor, and Sandi laughed to see Rev give his mother the same “hug and lift” treatment he gave her when they had not seen each other in a few days. Only by seeing Dava and Kali in relation to her fiancé did she realize how tiny all the Shastri-Persson women were. He was only six feet tall but, compared to his mother and sister, seemed like a near giant.
“Oh, Rev, stop,” Dava gasped as she was returned to the floor. She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes for a brief second, then laughed and swatted her son’s arm. As the three reunited, Sandi snuck a quick glimpse of herself in a nearby mirror and was dismayed to see her brown ponytail mussed from the wind, and her pink sweater covered in lint.
“Amma, this is Sandi,” Rev said with a grin. After a beat, he added, “My fiancée.”
“Mrs. Shastri. Mrs. Shastri-Persson. So nice to meet you,” Sandi stuttered, nearly slipping in her socked feet as she went to shake Dava’s hand.
“Welcome, Sandi. How are you? You must be exhausted from all that travel.” She clasped Sandi’s icy hand in her warm ones and pressed it briefly before letting go. “And you can call me Dava.”
Before Sandi could respond—to say, Thank you for having me; I was so touched when Rev said you wanted me to join you for the holidays—Dava began to engage in a brisk back-and-forth with her children, asking them if they had eaten breakfast (“Yes, Amma”) and if they had checked their devices into the lockboxes already (“Of course, Amma”), before informing them which rooms they would be staying in (Kali swore under her breath when told she had the “cozy room,” while Rev did a quick fist pump upon hearing he had one of the downstairs guest rooms).
The rat-a-tat nature of their conversation was interrupted by others emerging into the foyer, a blur of color and voices that bounced across the high ceilings.
“I thought you were getting here ahead of us,” Rev said in the direction of the group, their morass of luggage squeaking noisily on the hardwood.
“We were supposed to, but then Sita—”
“Let’s not start, Arvie. I’m exhausted. Hi, Amma,” said Sita, giving her mother a wary hug. Dava’s oldest daughter seemed to be a near-perfect replica of her mother, except an inch taller. “We didn’t have anyone waiting at the dock to help us with our things.”
“No household help this time.” Dava gave her a wan smile.
“Ha, so we’re roughing it,” said Rev, putting an arm around Sandi. “Guys, this is—”
“Wait, what about Mario? I thought you gave him my list of dietary restrictions for the twins,” Sita said, while her boys yelled out, “Hi, Gamma!” as they ran past, her husband, Colin, waving hello as he chased after them.
“No chef either,” Dava replied. “But I brought some meals Mario whipped up for us. He promised to incorporate your requests.”
Sita let out a loud sigh and muttered, “Fine.”
“Surely we can cook for ourselves? I’m pretty sure one of you married a chef.”
“Vincent’s on vacation, Mom. He doesn’t want to cook for us,” Arvie, Dava’s eldest, groaned on his husband’s behalf.
“Yes he does,” Vincent said, bending down to kiss his mother-in-law’s cheek. Both men were pale and balding, and the only way Sandi could distinguish between them was Arvie wore glasses and Vincent had the height and beard of a Viking.
“Vincent, do you know anything about preparing gluten-free, protein-enriched meals?”
“Sita, give him a moment,” Arvie said. “We just got here five seconds ago.”
Sandi saw Rev and Kali lock eyes and repress laughter while their mother shook her head with a bemused smile.
“Where did your girls go?” Dava said, trying to look past Arvie and Vincent as if peering between two giant redwoods.
“They have a lot of things to check into their lockboxes,” Vincent said with a laugh. “They’re having a hard time letting go.”
“Boys, come back here, we need to take our bags upstairs,” Sita called out as she walked into the interior of the house.
“Why do you assume you have the upstairs guest room?” Kali asked.
“We always do, Kal,” her sister said, brushing past her.
“We always do, Kal,” Arvie mimicked under his breath as both he and Vincent followed Sita into the house, with Dava following after them.
“Here we go,” Rev and Kali said in unison, and the younger Shastri-Perssons laughed as they headed out of the foyer with the rest of their family. Sandi watched them leave, waiting for someone to remember she existed. Just when she was about to give in to self-pity, wondering how she could have believed she would be welcomed with open arms, Rev poked his head out from behind the stairway and called out, “Coming?”
* * *
Sandi would only have two real conversations with Dava during the length of their stay. The first one occurred as Dava showed her around the house with Rev tagging along. Sandi had hoped to quickly bond with her future mother-in-law, but Dava had the officiousness of a museum docent, pleasant yet distant.
She walked them around the first floor, with the downstairs guest rooms next to the great room on one side of the staircase, and the kitchen, dining room, and cozy room on the other side. As they toured the home, Dava explained that the inspiration for the house was a nineteenth-century chalet she had once stayed at in Switzerland.
“Amma loved it so much she brought it here,” Rev said once they returned to the foyer, as if he was explaining something slightly embarrassing.
“Not brought—duplicated. The exact same layout, in fact, with a few modifications. You’ll see a photograph of the original hanging in your room.” She raised an eyebrow at her son, and he ducked his head meekly, though he could not hide his grin. “And so when I decided to build a family home, my own Kykuit, if you will, I knew that chalet is where I wanted us to have memories together, spend holidays, celebrate birthdays.”
“Couldn’t we have had a Kykuit in Hawaii instead?” Rev teased. “I swear we’d all come more often.”
“It’s an amazing home,” Sandi gushed, leaning forward so she could see past her fiancé and make eye contact with his mother. “I am just so honored to be here with you all.” Then her hands began to tremor as if she were standing on a fault line. As she furtively hid them in the back pocket of her jeans, she berated herself for succumbing to a “blush attack,” a phrase coined by her smug college boyfriend to describe how she became red-faced and jittery when meeting one of her favorite authors.
But Sandi had never met someone as famous as Dava Shastri before. Before Rev, she knew of her future mother-in-law as the woman who appeared on cable news shows speaking about feminism or charity initiatives, occasionally going viral when she steamrollered the windbag pundits who attempted to interrupt her. After meeting Rev, Sandi learned that Dava was so much more than those appearances, and felt ashamed that she had been ignorant of how much she had accomplished—starting a business that disrupted the music industry, then selling it for tens of millions—by the time she was Sandi’s age.
"A rich portrait of a family facing their powerful matriarch's death, Dava Shastri's Last Day is full of music, magnetism, and familial obligation. If Succession were about a multicultural family who actually loved each other, it might look like this."—Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here
"Kirthana Ramisetti has written a sweeping saga and also a poignant story about sacrifice and the exacting price of secrecy. Cinematic and intimate, Dava Shastri’s Last Day is an intricate story about family and love."—Devi S. Laskar, Author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues
"Dava Shastri's Last Day is a story about ambition and greatness, wealth and family, full of secrets, love, and music, and those eternal pop song complements: heartbreak and hope. It's a gripping, deeply satisfying story about one woman's tremendous life—and the infinitely complicated ways we create our own legacies."
—Kate Racculia, Author of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts and Bellweather Rhapsody
"Ramisetti beautifully weaves keen analysis of celebrity culture and a deep love of music into this perceptive, intergenerational story of resentment, trauma, love, and redemption. A page-turner with humor, heart, and lots of pop music."—Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia
"Ramisetti draws nuanced characters who are introspective and entertaining. A solid debut that will appeal to readers who enjoy quirky family stories."—Kirkus
"A thought-provoking family drama that will appeal to fans of All Adults Here by Emma Straub."—Booklist
"Dava is fearless . . . Ramisetti takes us on a journey that terrifies, exhilarates and plunges us into a place of freedom and truth that can only be achieved when life meets death."—BookTrib
"A high-concept novel that pulls off its premise, but its star is Dava herself . . . fascinating."—Strong Sense of Place
- On Sale
- Nov 30, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing