I came to writing at thirty—after touring the worlds of fashion editorial and luxury public relations, after doing a master’s in anthropology, after declining an offer to complete a doctorate in the field, after beginning an MFA in creative writing, only to leave after a semester. With each successive pivot, I grew not only more aware of, but also more self-conscious, of a kind of timid leave-taking in which I was fast becoming proficient, leave-taking I disguised as free will. But what quietly mounted within me was the pain of having abandoned several opportunities, the ache of a string of departures from possible lives for myself. Ultimately, deciding I didn’t need a degree to write, I tried my hand at essays while employed as an administrator in higher education. But the more I read and wrote, the more a grave fear would eventually take hold of me—that I had something to prove. That I was already behind. Or worse, out of time.
Perhaps something had awakened in me in a nonfiction workshop in 2016, when I’d written an essay about my relationship to Latin, a language I began learning at twelve and in which I majored in college. The essay chronicled my overwhelming loneliness as an adolescent, and it described how I’d clung to the dead language in order to feel both smart and superior. Although my peers commented on the essay’s beautiful sentences, they couldn’t help me see where to take the piece. And I felt close to the words I’d written because they recorded my experiment with a sophisticated style of writing. Something about that draft sounded like a voice that was just breaking to the surface. And because excelling at Latin suggested to me that I’d once seemed impressive to others, I ignored the fact that this essay was serving the original purpose that the ancient language had for me as a lonely teenager. I was, however, helpless in becoming obsessed with upholding this image of myself, lest anyone see me as a fraud.
In all likelihood, though, no one cared about my sense of self as much as I did.
The following year, I brought a draft of this piece to a prestigious summer workshop as one of their scholars, confident that I’d already distinguished myself from the rest of the attendees, confirmed in my suspicion that I was exceptional to the other writers I’d meet that week. In my naïveté, my fate was going to be decided around a workshop table, at an agent or editor meeting, or during an evening karaoke reception. In the years that followed, this single essay took on outsized significance in my mind. Each draft that I revised and sent out was influenced—and in some ways hampered—by my awe of brilliant work that I came across. The essay became a desperate effort to prove myself as intelligent, self-sufficient, and in control of the future I sought to secure for myself. I asked draft after draft to bear the weight of all my ambitions—or rather, my anxieties. And I expected my words to launch me coolly into the literary world, a move into the spotlight that I assumed would dispel the fear of my own shortcomings.
What my little anecdote suggests is how making art has become inextricable from showcasing to the world not just that art but also one’s identity as an artist. In a 2008 essay, Malcolm Gladwell asks why genius is so always linked to precocity—precocity being that state of having ripened quite young, before one has had a chance to live—and perhaps even toil—for years. And why does creative genius so necessarily burn bright at an early age, only to be extinguished while an artist is still young? Because the market over values the finished product as much as it mythologizes the figure of the prodigy, we in turn render invisible not just the process of learning, failing, or creating art; what’s worse, we pay too little attention to those who start late or develop their craft more slowly than the rest—what Gladwell and others call “late bloomers.” It bears noting that, in this context, this term refers to either artists who take years practicing, experimenting, making hazarded and gradual progress, or individuals who have decided to switch to art-making later in life.
Deepa Varadarajan’s debut novel Late Bloomers expands the term’s meaning to include those who make a fresh start more than part of their way through life. Varadarajan, a graduate of Yale Law School, teaches at Georgia State University and has published legal scholarship alongside her fiction. Late Bloomers, which follows the four members of the Raman family, makes the claim that none of us is undeserving of a second act. Each character is given a chance to rediscover their resolve for living anew. Although the novel stumbles and skids in places, distracting readers with its overwritten, haphazard style, Late Bloomers finds footing in the human and very vulnerable reason some of us take longer to develop. Lying to others—but more often to ourselves—is so often what keeps us from experiencing our fullest self-actualization.
Varadarajan sets her novel within the span of a few days, offering four first-person perspectives of a family broken apart after the parents’ divorce. In a fictional Texas town, the moody patriarch Suresh finds himself living alone in the four-bedroom dream house he once shared with his wife Lata. Thrown into the deep end of online dating, he realizes how disappointing meeting women is while struggling to be a resource for his adult children, Priya and Nikesh: “It was so hard, this being alone… Death wasn’t some glimmer in the distance, assured but out of reach like the moon. It was close now—a porchlight right outside my house, casting its somber glow on my daily steps.”
His ex-wife Lata, who has spent years keeping up appearances in her marriage, has taken her first job as a librarian, and now rents an unhappy apartment from a friend as she fends off the admiration of a college professor. She asks herself, “How has your life ended up like this? Why are you fifty-seven and living in someone else’s apartment?” The sulking Priya loathes herself for sleeping with a married man, an economics professor at the same college where she teaches history, offers a tender memory of togetherness. Remembering the home where their family lived before moving into the dream house, she reminds herself “how our four toothbrushes had sat together in that [four-holed] toothbrush holder, two adult-sized and two kids’ toothbrushes, crusty with the remnants of paste, leaning into one another.” She breaks into tears at the realization that her own toothbrush will never again have another companion.
For much of the novel, these characters spend so much time apart, dwelling for entire chapters in their own minds, concealing from their family members the unfamiliar swerves their lives have taken, that Varadarajan’s decision to use four points of view works. Suresh, for his part, can’t divulge that a widowed woman and her eight-year-old son have shown up at his door without anywhere to go—no more than Lata can admit to being pursued by a romantic interest. And Priya is ashamed to tell her folks about being some man’s other woman.
Even more unspeakable, though, is what the tender heart of the Raman family is enduring. Priya’s complacent brother Nikesh is in a strained relationship with the partner of the law firm where he works, a woman he lives with in Brooklyn and with whom they have a newborn son. Nikesh hasn’t told his parents that he isn’t in fact married to the woman with whom he’s had a child. Through comedic scenes as well as touching memories recounted in each narrator’s voice, the Raman family’s plans to gather for Nikesh’s son’s first birthday provide the pressure that will release the lies, and for each character to confront the delusions holding them back from enjoying a deeper understanding of who they are to one another and to themselves. But each of them is desperate to reveal “the reformed me,” “the new and improved” version of themselves, so much so that they can’t help but get in their own way time and time again. Their yearning to present themselves as somehow different or better gets in the way of their accepting themselves as flawed.
In March, I saw the play Letters from Max: A Ritual, which adapts the collection of letters, poems, texts, voicemails, and conversations that playwright Sarah Ruhl shared with her former student Max Ritvo—a precocious and effervescent poet, who, as he underwent treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma, sought a language for the pain of confronting his own mortality. The play and the book from which it’s adapted both capture the unique style and sensibility of a young writer who seems fully formed from the outset of his career. The poignancy of the story lies in the fact of Ritvo’s all-too-soon extinguishing, the loss of promise that his early death effects. His struggle is not of learning how to create art but of learning, instead, how to let go of life. I left the theater thoroughly touched by Ritvo’s assurance of himself as a talented artist, one who trusted his abilities to arrange thought into language. But I also thought back to all the wonderful teachers I had in school, the ones who’d stood at the sidelines of my life, waiting patiently for me to tell them the thing I most wanted for myself. Yet I never articulated what I needed from them, my artistic ambitions never rising to the level of speech. As I walked toward the subway that spring afternoon, I realized I couldn’t fault my former mentors for having never placed a book like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance or Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh in my hands. Perhaps our fault as a culture is failing to notice those artists who take longer to tell themselves, first and foremost, the desires that terrify them the most.
Nikesh has the honor of bearing what appears to be Varadarajan’s outlook as a late bloomer, someone he sees as, rather admirably, starting over. Reflecting on his parents’ decision to divorce at middle age, he muses, “Something brave about the two of them trying to cobble together new lives while other Indian people their age were settling into creaky lawn chairs with chilled mango juice in hand, reconciling themselves to deadened marriages and eventless retirements.” For his sister Priya, the stakes of not seeing one’s life clearly come into sharpest relief in a stirring scene at a bar, acted out with French fries. Indignant that her parents’ divorce has ruined her ability to be in a romantic relationship, she says, well on her way to drunkenness, “Your world—your basket—starts shrinking. All those possibilities, they start disappearing. Until one day, all you’ve got is one, maybe two fries, tops, left in your basket, and you can’t just throw one way, because if you do, then there’ll be no more fries left, and it’ll just be you all alone with an empty basket.” Although she’s in her mid-thirties, she tells herself it’s too late to have what she wants, and so she runs from life, from the unbearable turn life has taken in her eyes. As she gives up on herself, the ache we feel for her lies in subtext: Priya, like each of us at times, forecloses the possibility of experiencing enhanced and fuller relationships with the people she loves.
But Varadarajan balances choice and chance, elucidating how our lives aren’t entirely up to us. Where Priya blames herself, Varadarajan places in Nikesh’s eyes all the empathy late bloomers are owed. Fate—or the vicissitudes of history—necessitates that we hold space for those who, in Nikesh’s mind, just want to “finally try to find a little happiness, to make up for some lost time.” “As far as I could tell,” he tells himself, “my parents had gotten a raw deal. They’d hit their twenties at precisely the wrong moment in India. A generation too early.” The unfortunate consequence, to some degree, of having sufficient opportunities to thrive living in the India that would open to the West in the 1990s was that Nikesh’s parents are now “breaking, at last, the bonds of duty and obligation and the keeping up of appearances that had served them so sorrily up until this point.” The stakes of resenting his parents, as Priya does, reveal themselves in Nikesh’s touching observation: “What would I do if, three decades from now, I discovered I’d pursued the wrong career, married the wrong woman, alienated my kid. The scary thing was: it wasn’t that hard to imagine.” Each of us needs some help, then, to see around the bends of our mind. Without our responsibility to others, we may never know the next act of our lives, might never learn to see ourselves in a changed light.
When I chose the writing life, I asked a few friends—one of whom would go on to become the editor of this magazine—for advice on getting started. But what I dared not say was that I wanted to see my name on the cover of a novel. Is this another way of saying I no longer wished to feel the crushing weight of my own purposelessness and resulting loneliness? Perhaps, although I turned to writing personal essays and criticism first, writing without a plan, my process one of trial and error, of experimentation and hiding in embarrassment. The work of putting down words always abated these awful feelings, but after a few years of attending workshops, enlisting the support of several trusted readers, and making only incremental progress, I understood how unknowing I’d once been. I shrank from this self as much as my writerly identity took hold of me like a fever. My ambitions soared the more deeply and widely I read, and, in turn, I understood the extent of my own shortfalls, which only deepened my shame.
But it’s not quite right to say that I came to writing at thirty—only that I stopped placing art-making at the periphery of my life. Creativity as a guiding ethos swung to the exact center of my personhood. I didn’t care that I conformed to Ira Glass’s observation about how artists experience themselves early in their careers: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” The chasm between my tastes and my skills seemed untraversable. I in turn stopped reaching out to people, stopped sharing drafts, stopped submitting work. I closed myself off. The vague hope that I might embody the fantasy of a butterfly—soaring into visibility fully formed—was receding with each year I toiled. In a sense, I was up against a nameless antagonist, the very part of me that was bent on seeing me fail.
In writing this essay, however, I’ve come across a string of buried memories. A flair for creativity had flown through me at an early age, finding a somewhat embarrassing but tender expression in dance, choir, and melodramatic poems. My amateur attachment to the arts fell away by twelve, replaced by a fixation on proving myself intelligent. Because learning Latin came easily to me, it shielded me from the fear that I might not be as smart or competent as I felt I needed to be to succeed. As long as I could muffle my artistic inclinations, the dead language safeguarded me from the terror of longing for a life dedicated to making art. And so, I raced ahead, absorbing all the facets of the abstruse subject, winning awards, and garnering praise. When, in college, other subjects challenged me, I slinked back to Latin’s familiar comforts, relinquishing countless chances to practice other skills necessary for becoming not smarter but more resilient. To have decided, then, almost a decade after graduation, that I wanted to return to a life engaged in the creative process ran me straight into myself—which is to say, my own sense of futility. Today, nothing scares me more than discovering I never had—or will never have—what it takes to write. The horror that I will humiliate myself as a writer continues to haunt and overwhelm me, causing me to fall away from the world. But this futility is both a monstrous and integral part of me. To quote Margo Jefferson, “You were always calculating—not always well—how to achieve; succeed as a symbol, and a self.”
Early in Late Bloomers, Lata shows us her pity for Jared, the forty-something manager of the library where she works. Though he slips away from work for hours for “dentist appointments,” it’s an open secret that he’s auditioning for musical theater roles. Says Lata to herself:
“I struggled to imagine him reaching any professional heights beyond his current library position. And yet, off he went, week after week, speeding out of the library door with the same urgent look on his face…and despite his best efforts, week after week, month after month, his life remained exactly the same. Completely unchanged. What made him keep trying? Blindness? Stupidity? This irrational dreaming, this clinging to the belief that it was never too late or that anything was possible—I’d never been able to decide whether it was an admirable quality in white Americans or a ridiculous one.”
In rereading this passage, I couldn’t help but think that Varadarajan has placed in Lata’s eyes the withering gaze of someone who existed on the sidelines of her own life in Georgia, watching her steal time to write her debut novel in private as she sought another kind of life for herself, one that belonged entirely to her.
Jared has the privilege of illuminating the full meaning of the novel’s title. As he explains to Lata before the novel opens, “I have a soft spot for underdogs. And late bloomers. You’ve told me a lot of things about yourself, so let me tell you something about me. I didn’t come out as a gay man until I was forty. I know something about second acts in life. And I want to help you find yours.” When Lata comes upon him rehearsing in a room in the music building on campus, she is tickled to learn that he’s gotten the lead role in a performance. “He had kept trying and failing, trying and failing, until he succeeded. He was living the second act that he wanted. He hadn’t been afraid to try.” Although it’s precisely the lesson in perseverance Lata needs in order to date another man, to show up for her daughter Priya, to stop lying to herself about what she wants out of life, Jared’s determination to imagine another life for himself falls flat for me. For all his joy practicing in front of Lata, perhaps a part of me needed to see a more complicated relationship with the challenges of making art, about the many roles we play on and off stage.
Although Varadarajan’s novel is written with little attention to the finer subtleties of language, the recurring image of landscaping offers a rare strain of beauty. “Instead of letting them die,” Suresh thinks to himself, remembering how he’d tended to the plants outside their dream home, “I had nurtured them to life, made them bloom.” Though a tired trope, a well-manicured property in Varadarajan’s hands becomes a prism through which the Raman family sees itself. Suresh takes quiet pride in his dedication to seeing life emerge again out of the ground, while Priya rethinks who her father may have been all along: “I hadn’t pegged Dad for the plant-nurturing type, but damned if he didn’t have a knack for it.” Even Lata reconsiders her husband’s character as she notices the desert willows and crepe myrtles as she pulls up to the house one night: “What I had expected, of course, was a mess… But no: in the dark at least, everything looked as good as I had left it. Maybe even better.” In showing us both women’s bemusement, something shifts inside us. Insofar as each adjusts her perspective toward Suresh, not letting ourselves see another possible truth keeps us from growing, from knowing who else we can become.
This picture of a thriving garden touched me, what’s more, for in avoiding humiliation, I’ve lain in wait in an underground of my own making. Ashamed of the ways I’ve fallen short of who I’ve longed to be, I’ve hidden drafts of my work from others as much as I’ve hidden from myself. Having staked a rather premature claim on my inchoate identity as a writer, it’s fallen to me to consider shedding a particular—and particularly facile—image of myself as smart, superior, sophisticated. This was of course the very self I so wished to preserve and portray in drafts of that early essay on my relationship with Latin. For years I worried about leaving behind opportunities I was handed for accumulating skills, for gaining expertise, for advancing myself. But to have been so attached to seeing myself in a certain light, I inadvertently abandoned along the way the chance to find new eyes with which to see myself.
Gardening is a practice that requires trial and error. And it demands in the gardener the will to flourish. Although Varadarajan cannot show us a subtler portrait of a middle-aged-man tending to a garden, we nevertheless catch a glimpse of the results of his off-stage patience and dedication. For her narrative aims, new growth emerges after a season of planting and pruning, lending the reader a sort of simplistic trust in his own efforts. But artists understand time as an element inherently constitutive of their work. It requires years to train one’s eye or ear not only to apprehend the world but also to be attuned to a particular way of representing that world through dance, film, or paint. Artists aren’t looking for assurance that their perspective or treatment is correct—rather that they alone trust how they see what they’re looking at. Late Bloomers doesn’t show how seeing, or rather, learning to resee, takes time. All the same, implicit in the novel’s gardening motif is a modest message: we seldom care for ourselves with the same determination as for our plants. About the things we care most—namely, ourselves—we lie. And what in turn eludes us is the emergence of new buds within ourselves, blooms that lay dormant for years before opening to the sun.