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Deepa Varadarajan on the humor and humanity of rediscovery in 'Late Bloomers'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Is it ever too late to start over? And if it's not, how does a person do that? Those are the questions at the heart of Deepa Varadarajan's debut novel "Late Bloomers." It's the story of the Raman family - daughter Priya, son Nikesh and parents Suresh and Lata, who've just divorced after 36 years of an arranged marriage.

DEEPA VARADARAJAN: So Lata, she has a job outside the home for the first time. She's working at a university library, and she loves it. And a professor there asks her out. And it's a very new and nerve-wracking experience for her.

PFEIFFER: Lata is nervous about starting a new relationship. Suresh is lonely and uses online dating to try to find a wife.

VARADARAJAN: When he does it, he starts realizing, well, people are lying in their profiles. And the funny thing is that, you know, he is too, but when he does it, he doesn't think of it as lying. He thinks of it as these reasonable deviations from truth.

PFEIFFER: A story about dating for the first time in middle age and unhappy adult children could be depressing, but in Varadarajan's hands, it's human and funny.

VARADARAJAN: I have always been drawn as a reader to books that manage to combine these elements of humor and heartbreak. I admire that a lot. And so I knew that when I was writing a novel, I wanted to incorporate these elements of humor. Sometimes I was less confident about my ability to pull that off, but I really knew I wanted to try. And there are these serious situations in the book, things that people are grappling with, like divorce and aging and adult sibling relationships and parental anxieties. There are also characters that are trying for a second act and trying for reinvention and trying these new things, and so there's a lot of opportunities for humor in the things that they're doing as well.

PFEIFFER: You said you thought that might be hard for you to pull off. Why did you think that?

VARADARAJAN: I think sometimes it can be hard to combine those elements of humor and heartbreak. So when you are talking about something serious, like divorce or regretting these paths you didn't take in life, you don't want to make light of those things. So choosing the moments to incorporate humor and how to do it, I think that can be a challenge. And so it took, for me, a good deal of writing and rewriting to try to get that balance right.

PFEIFFER: Deepa, your book shows us an arranged marriage that ultimately didn't work out, but I read that your own parents had an arranged marriage, and they've stayed married nearly five decades, and they seem to be happy. What's your view as an Indian woman yourself of whether successful arranged marriages are more a matter of luck or work over time?

VARADARAJAN: Well, I think all marriages, whatever their origins, require work. And, as you say, I am the product of a very happy arranged marriage. My parents have been married for almost 50 years, and they are a very compatible couple. They have a great relationship. But any relationship, whatever its origins, take work and compromise and, you know, having reasonable expectations.

PFEIFFER: But with an arranged marriage, you don't have the opportunity that people who have a relationship that begins more organically to vet each other to decide if you're compatible, so I think there is a fundamental difference.

VARADARAJAN: That is true in the sense that it requires more luck, I guess, in that way. You sort of hope that your personalities are compatible. And certainly Nikesh, their son, really thinks his parents were this accident of timing - right? - that if they had been born at a later date, they could have had a chance to meet. They could have, like many of his relatives in India or his parents' younger relatives in India, they could have had this different model where their parents are introducing them to someone, but they have this chance to hang out alone and see if they're going to be a good fit.

PFEIFFER: Your book shows a clash of generations and how different generations take different approaches to love and relationships. Do you think any generation has figured it out, or are we all just muddling along no matter how old we are?

VARADARAJAN: Yeah. I don't think any generation has it figured out. I mean, I think definitely we are (laughter) all muddling along. And the thing that I think is sort of interesting about this story is that all four of these individuals are going through this relationship turmoil at the same time. So none of them have it figured out.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) There's a line where the son is reflecting on his parents having gotten divorced and trying to date again, and he says there was something admirable about what they were doing, this trying to start over thing. That made me wonder if you personally believe it's ever too late to start over?

VARADARAJAN: I don't. I mean, I - this book is very much about reinvention and second chances. And I'm always fascinated by that question of it's ever too late to have a second act. And I don't think so. I don't think it's too late to try for the things you care about. I don't think it's too late to try for a new relationship, and, maybe to some extent, you know, I'm also - I think about that just even in terms of this novel. I'm sort of a late bloomer when it comes to writing fiction.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

VARADARAJAN: I'm a debut novelist in my mid-40s, you know, so (laughter) I definitely believe in second acts (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Absolutely. I mean, the title "Late Bloomer" does seem to apply to you because you had or have a law career. You did your writing, as I understand it, while you were working at a law firm and clerking for a judge and teaching law. Do you view yourself as starting over in a sense by writing this?

VARADARAJAN: In a way - this is certainly a very new experience for me, this process of publishing a book. And, you know, it's something that's very different than my academic life in many ways, but it's a dream that I've had for a very long time to be a published writer, and I'm excited that it's happening.

PFEIFFER: You know, every good novel is both a story that also contains larger messages about life, things we can learn from other writers about life. How much of your book did you want to be just a good, interesting, entertaining story and something that tells people about relationships and options and love? What's the balance of those two things for you?

VARADARAJAN: I definitely wanted this to be a story that brings people joy. I wanted it to be a hopeful story, but I do hope people gain these insights about love and relationships and reinvention and second chances. And I think some things that people can take away from this book is that it is never too late for a second act. It's never too late to try for something you care about. And sometimes our family members change and evolve in these ways that we struggle to accept, but when we do, we can grow together in ways that we didn't anticipate.

PFEIFFER: That's author Deepa Varadarajan. Her debut novel is "Late Bloomers." Thank you very much.

VARADARAJAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHANIEL DREW X TOM FOX'S "REVERIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.