If you caught last week’s post, you’ll know that I’m interviewing authors who are at different stages of their careers. I started January with an interview of Rachel Gibson, a long-established, highly popular romance novelist who’s revisiting her first and most well-known series, The Chinooks.
Last week I interviewed Sonali Dev, and we talked about her fourth (beautiful!) book in as many years, plus her writing process and her desire to use storytelling as a way to make a difference in the marketplace and in how we view and interact with cultures we perceive as different.
Today I’d like to introduce you to Falguni Kothari, whose first romantic women’s fiction novel and US publishing debut, My Last Love Story, releases next week from Harlequin’s women’s fiction line, Graydon House. I say her first “women’s fiction" and "US publishing debut,” because Kothari has traditionally and independently published a number of books in a variety of genres since her first book, It’s Your Move, Wordfreak, came out in 2012 from Rupa Publications, an Indian publisher. In fact, My Last Love Story was originally self-published, then picked up by Graydon House, while Soul Warrior, the indie-pubbed first title in a fantasy series, was recently picked up by another Indian publisher.
Falguni’s publishing journey is unconventional, as is this lovely and heart-wrenching book. The main character (and first-person narrator) is Simeen Desai, whose best friends since her teen years are her now-husband, Nirvaan, and her first love, Zayaan.
It’s a complicated relationship, especially since Nirvaan is dying of cancer and has decreed that the awkwardness among them since he and Simi were married must stop.
And what Nirvaan wanted, Nirvaan would get.
He’d say, “Jump.”
We’d ask, “How high?”
He was dying. We were not. It was that simple.
Of course in the end, it’s not that simple. Nirvaan wants a baby, Simi is much less sure. Nirvaan understands more about her convoluted feelings toward the men and their long-standing friendship than she thinks he does. Zayaan has never completely overcome the hurt of losing Simi, especially since he doesn’t know the very complex reasons she broke up with him.
In other words, Kothari has set up an emotionally sinuous book that examines a very special set of relationships through a multi-faceted lens, even though that lens is told completely from Simi’s perspective. However, the perspective is very smart and aware.
Simi understands everyone’s weaknesses, including her own, but she is honest about them, even when she comes across as selfish, insecure, secretive or vulnerable. Even when she’s describing their family’s issues with her, and how they perceive her.
In other words, a fascinating study of love, selfishness, self-sacrifice, friendship, devotion and loyalty. There’s no time to waste here, Simi is saying, and I get it, but that doesn’t help me heal all the wounds I need to in order to get things the way they need to be for Nirvaan to be happy. Then again, what do Zayaan and I need to be happy? Where do those things connect with what Nirvaan wants, and where do they diverge? And what do we do about it?
Kothari has written a very different kind of love story, but it is one that examines and explores very real, very complex questions, and on top of that, does it in a context of three Indian characters, from three different religions, facing these issues in a brand new place, knowing no one but each other.
I was fascinated by the book and caught up with Falguni Kothari to ask her some questions about her inspirations and choices.
We started with the characters, who meet at a party on Simi’s fifteenth birthday, soon after the death of her parents. Nirvaan, Zayaan and Simi are, respectively, Hindu, Muslim and Parsi, but all live in the same upper middle class neighborhood in Surat, a city in India known for its textile production. The three become close friends and do everything together, including some fairly tame sexual exploration, but when Zayaan and Simi become a couple, it complicates things.
And since there’s a lot to unpack in that setup, socially and culturally, I asked Kothari her thoughts on some of those storytelling decisions.
“India has a culturally conservative reputation but the more rules you have, the more likely it is that people are going to resist a little. Especially teens and young adults, who can be very daring. I also wanted to show that, in urban areas, young people from different backgrounds will interact a lot more than you might expect. It is not unrealistic at all that these three friends would have met the way they did, and that their own behavior and interactions would reflect both their individual backgrounds and the ways they rebelled against them.”
In the end, it is a tragic act that drives the three of them apart, and Simi turns to the more light-hearted Nirvaan over the brooding, intense Zayaan. They are still friends, all of them, to some degree, but the triangle has lost its ease and balance.
Years later, when it becomes clear Nirvaan will not survive his final bout of cancer, he decides to rent a beach house in Carmel, California and live his final days surrounded by his two best friends. He also wants to have a baby and exhorts a promise from Simi that she’ll pursue in vitro fertilization.
Meanwhile, both Nirvaan’s and Zayaan’s families have problems with Simi, and the friends have to sort out what matters and what doesn’t, given the unorthodox arrangements Nirvana has made.
Kothari is very interested in writing about modern India and the immigrant experience. “There’s just so much to explore,” she reflects. “Zayaan settles in London and becomes a renowned scholar in world literature, sociology and Islamic studies, because he’s fascinated by how populations and religions move and settle. As am I. These friends come from different backgrounds and wind up in the same place, then wind up around the world. It’s a huge part of India’s history and culture, even today, with so many Indians moving to America, Europe and everywhere else. It intrigues me. Immigrants have been a huge part of Indian society for the past thousand years, and now we are moving into other cultures and societies, while still navigating it within our own cultural identity at home.”
With the three friends facing Nirvaan’s illness and imminent death in Carmel, it’s almost as if they’ve created their own society. There has always been a sexual and romantic tension among the three of them, which has moved from playful to competitive to painful. Now is the time to heal long-standing wounds, and while no one says it out loud, there is the implied desired outcome that Nirvaan wants to see his two beloved friends wind up together, after he’s gone.
It’s a whole new emotional frontier they’re exploring, with its requisite negative social impact, their own discomfort with the situation, and an examination of what they want vs. what is expected of them, from their families, the community around them, and their own desires and expectations.
Kothari does an amazing job of telling a variety of perspectives from Simi’s own experience and point of view. “There was this sense,” reflects Kothari, “that the friendship that’s sort of a love triangle is okay in the context of teen exploration, but those are things you put away when you get to adulthood. I wanted to explore this very complicated situation Nirvaan is trying to engineer, but had to figure out a way to do it so the parents wouldn’t object. A young man dying from cancer is tragic and horrible, but it’s also a way to get around a lot of judgment. There’s a true selflessness in those last days, from the patient and from the people who love him.”
It’s a story element that also interests Kothari on its own. “I had a dear cousin who died very young from cancer. I dedicated this book to her. She taught me a lot about death and also how to live, to not take things for granted.”
My Last Love Story is a lovely, haunting book that explores so much of the best and worst of human nature, in ways that are inspiring and compelling. It’s not an easy book, nor a simple one, but it is so worth a read. I loved it and, if you love beautiful writing, complex characters and a thought-provoking stories, you will too.
I also asked Falguni for some books recommendations:
Jamie Brenner’s The Forever Summer is a wonderful mosaic of the intertwining lives of four women in a multigenerational family, who didn’t know that they were a family to begin with. It is the perfect summer read with a cast of captivatingly quirky characters I got to know intimately, family secrets I wanted them to unearth and an idyllic beach setting where it all unfolded, and where I wish to spend a summer. (Kirkus review)
Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart destroyed me. Kept me up all night until I turned the last page. This book is about passion and love..."the best of it and the worst of it." It's about friendship, and guilt, and life and fate. It's about a girl whose health mocks her zest for life. And a man whose life has been sucked dry of zest. Rahul and Kimi can only be whole together. We know they'll make it...they have to...but their journey to that end is what grand love stories are all about. (Kirkus *starred review)
Kaira Rouda’s Best Day Ever is a page-turning suspense novel you won’t be able to put down. It’s like a car crash you can’t take your eyes off, where you’re both horrified and fascinated in equal parts. The best part is that you know from the first page that main POV character, Paul Strom, is an unreliable narrator, and yet you cannot help wondering how the book is going to end when you know deep down there can only be one way it’ll end. And then you’re shocked again. (Kirkus review)
There were more books that I haven’t been able to forget this year:
On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins
The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
Before I Knew by Jamie Beck
Bless Her Heart by Sally Kilpatrick