THAT SUMMER IN PARIS by Abha Dawesar. Nan A. Talese, June 2006. Hardcover, 338 pages. $23.95.
Abha Dawesar’s latest novel, That Summer in Paris, signals a more mature style. Her previous novels, Miniplanner and Babyji, though well received, were not as literary or artistically contemplative as this one.
Dawesar’s ability to get into the head of Prem Rustum, a 75-year-old writer of great fame, in fact a cult figure, is fascinating. Prem’s characterization is replete with the desperate desires of an older man, the best of whose life is clearly behind him. He still thinks of himself as worthy of any young, adoring fan, so much so that he joins an online dating forum and searches for whoever may have included his name in a profile of her interests. With the encouragement of his younger friend, Pascal, he pursues Maya, first meeting her at a café and then following her to Paris, where she intends to spend three months working on a novel about India.
While Dawesar builds Maya’s and Prem’s relationship slowly and carefully to a crescendo, the most interesting aspect of the book is Prem’s musings on his past. Although they give him some comfort, they are also an encumbrance to living his life fully in the present. For example, he seems unable to let go of the relationship he enjoyed with his younger sister, Meher. This relationship, deftly drawn by Dawesar, was one not only of intense love, but incestuous as well. This aspect of Prem gives insight into a character who is used to possessing whatever he desires. He has never said no to himself, and in fact cannot say no to his desires.
Maya’s character, on the other hand, never comes close to the depth of Prem’s. Her desire for a writer’s identity and a meaningful relationship, and her relentless curiosity about Prem makes her character reactive to the larger-than-life Prem rather than a three-dimensional entity in her own right. The fling she engages in while in Paris is never as interesting as all of her interactions with the aging writer.
Dawesar’s writing is controlled and evenly paced. This book is a joy for those interested in the workings of the mind and how writers and the fictional worlds they create impact those who read them. Maya muses:
But Prem’s [books] were in altogether another league; the words themselves felt as if they were no longer the words of human beings but something more, words from prophets or gods. They felt as if they were made with lava that flowed straight out of his heart onto the page, and then when you read them, they liquefied and entered from your pupils into your soul. Reading Prem Rustum’s books was like looking at one of Klimt’s extravagant gold paintings like Danaë.
Readers will find it hard to pull themselves out of the spell of intensity Dawesar creates in That Summer in Paris, and will, most certainly, think of her as creator in a whole different way.