Vikram Seth's novel is at its core a love story, the tale of Lata - and her mother's attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. Set in post-Independence India and involving the lives of four large families and those who orbit them, it is also a vast panoramic exploration of a whole continent at a crucial hour as a sixth of the world's population faces its first great General Election and the chance to map its own destiny. 'A SUITABLE BOY may prove to be the most fecund as well as the most prodigious work of the latter half of this century - perhaps even the book to restore the serious reading public's faith in the contemporary novel ... You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life' Daniel Johnson, The Times
"A Suitable Boy" is a generational story that takes place in India shortly after the death of Gandhi. It closely tracks the lives of several extended families who are joined together through love, honor, friendship, politics, history, and marriage. Vikram Seth delves into the minds of his heroines with an accurate intimacy and poignancy that is rare. His heroes have flaws and strengths, and before long, all of the characters in the novel begin to feel like members of your own family.
The main thread of the novel belongs to Lata Mehra. She is a college student whose mother has decided that it is time for her to marry. Her life touches the lives of nearly all of the other characters in the book. But the quest for a suitable boy for Lata is only one of the stories that unfolds. Another is the story of friendship between two families of diametrically opposing views, or the story of a young man's maturation, or the tales of love lost, of religious freedoms and tolerance, of the political evolution of one of the largest democratic countries in the world, and of every day life in India in the late 1950s.
I highly recommend reading this book. I felt lost and saddened when I came to the end of it, because I had gotten so used to spending time with the Mehras, Chattergis, and Kapoors every day, and suddenly, this relationship is at an end. So pick it up at your local book shop--you'll be glad you did. You can tell Lata and Mahn than I miss them.
The central thread of the novel is the search for a husband—“a suitable boy” for Lata Mehra, the younger daughter of Mrs. Rupra Mehra, a widow who lives in the fictional state of Purva Pradesh. Mrs. Mehra’s older daughter, Savita, has just been married to Pran Kapoor, a lecturer at Brahmpur University; Pran is the son of the Minister of Revenue for Purva Pradesh, Mahesh Kapoor, who was one of the original freedom fighters for India’s independence, and who is now an influential member of the ruling Congress Party. The Meharas and the Kapoors, along with the Chatterjis, an upper-class Hindu family of much more modern habits and the Kahns, a Muslim landowning family, provide the bulk of the characters through whose lives the reader sees India.
It is 1951, 5 years after independence, and 4 years after the agonizing partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The politicians have taken over from the British, and Seth’s account makes it clear that as everywhere else in the world, mediocrity for the most part rules and those who have risen from powerlessness to power are no different in their ambitions than in any other country. India is still fragile, still troubled with tensions between Muslims and Hindus, floundering in many respects—held together mainly through the people’s devotion to their Prime Minister, Nehru. While the novel concerns itself with the lives of those in the four families, who are either related by marriage or by ties of friendship, the political life of the country, as seen through the affairs of Purva Pradesh, is a prominent subthread. Hindu-Muslim riots and the elections of 1952 are an integral part of the story and affect the lives of all the families. Since one of the families is that of a powerful Muslim landowner who is affected by the land redistribution act promulgated and fought for by his best friend, Kapoor, Seth’s narration shows the consequences—both intended and unintended—of a well-meaning legislation aimed at giving poor tenant farmers their own land. Some of which actually wind up harming terribly the very people the legislation is meant to help. Seth does this seamlessly within the framework of the lives of his characters.
Another fascinating aspect of the book is the description of the Hindu religious celebrations. Since the story takes place over a time period of slightly more than one year, all the major religious celebrations are presented as seen through the participation of the characters—both the devout older women of the story, the somewhat skeptical younger generation who participate more out of a sense of tradition than piety, and of the men in the families, who are almost universally scornful and impatient with what they view as superstition. A panic during one of the major festivals that causes the deaths of hundreds. The inadvertent intermingling of a Hindu and a Muslim religious procession which results in a horrendous riot. These and more are skillfully interwoven into the main story.
But what leaps out more than anything else in this vast book is the way that the Indian middle classes have become Anglicized. It is a remarkable description of how an oppressed people long dominated by a ruling class of another race has taken on the prejudices and practices of their oppressors. “A suitable boy” must be able to speak English without accent. “A suitable boy” must not be too dark—as one of the characters says she does not want her grandchildren to be black. Lawyers in the courts address judges as “my Lords”. Cricket is a passion.
One minor flaw that is from time to time irritating: Seth uses a large number of Hindi words for all sorts of things, from the names of trees to fruits to common household items. Most of the time, this is not a problem because either (sooner or later) the meaning becomes clear from the context or the singularity of whatever it is, such as a tree, doesn’t get in the way. But from time to time, it’s a puzzle to understand exactly what Seth is talking about. Is it a chair? A stool? A bed? Some other piece of furniture? The book would benefit from a glossary.
There is more to this book, but these are the main threads. It’s a quiet book, that at first keeps to its innocent appearance as a book of manners, but slowly draws the reader in to the lives of the characters and the times in which they live. It becomes a page-turner simply because these lives, while quite ordinary in one sense, are caught up in extraordinary times and in a quest to live and be fulfilled when the world around them is changing from the traditional to the inescapably modern. The struggle to adjust, to keep what is valuable and also expected of the traditional—to keep purdah in the face of women’s voting rights, to accept arranged marriages in a world where young men and women can mingle far more freely than is traditional—while adjusting to the freedoms and dangers of the modern world—Seth has done a brilliant job of showing us ordinary, believable people caught up in this transition and making their lives absorbing to a reader 50 years later.
One level of the novel is, of course, the personal stories, and Seth does a good job of presenting people in their complexity. Besides Lata, I was also very caught up in the drama(s) of Maan, the son of a politician who seems a sort of lazy, charming wastral at the beginning, but gains in character as the novel progresses, despite his troubles; of Haresh who is making his way in the world through his own resources and hard work in the shoe business, despite it's association with the lower class; of Bhaskar, the 9 year old math prodigy; and Rasheed who does his best to bring justice to his village and suffers for it, among others.
Another level is the presence of family, and their influence. It might be difficult in the U.S. for someone with a good relationship to their family to go against their wishes to marry whom you like, but nonetheless we see it as an individual decision. And probably, most of us, hold a romantic relationship/marriage relationship as being individual and of more important than any other aside from parent/child. It is not only the influence of family on relationship choices that Seth makes clear, but also, a different attitude towards "passion" in a relationship. Nonetheless, Lata does not feel very different from any other young woman, and so it is easier to enter into her values.
The time period of the novel is just after Indian independence and the partition of Pakistan and India. There are many cultural and political events that we experience from the point of view of characters in the novel, such as the violence of partition (although this is retrospective in the novel) and the resulting tension between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc., the efforts to distribute land from big landowners to the peasants who actually work the land, the divisions that occurred between factions in the Congress party and the election of 1952. It is interesting to get the sort of home grown view of Nehru.
Once I finished the novel, I started reading India after Gandhi and although I haven't gotten very far, already it has been enriching to have the novel in my head as I read about the same historical events and personalities in a history.
This is a very rich book, and, even at the very end, I felt I would have enjoyed reading even more about these characters.
The huge, meandering story follows the lives of four main families, all tied together by marriage. It is, ostensibly, about finding a 'suitable boy' for Lata, but as well it is about India coping with Independence and Partition, about the country's identity in the wake of the departing British and conflicting religions, and about the clash between young and old, modern and traditional.
The story ends when Lata has chosen her 'suitable boy'. The wrong one in my opinion, but I wish her happiness.
First time I read it, I was in a rush, so I missed so much of the fine detail, especially in the last quarter.
However, I re-read it a few years later, and this time I took the time needed with it, realising how much I had missed on the first reading. It is a massive book, with more than enough characters (some would say "too many").
It centres on the story of an Indian mother trying to find "a suitable boy" for her daughter to marry. The daughter is a modern girl, not content with being meek and subservient and stuck in the hou
se and certainly not willing to put up with an arranged marriage. The story is set in the mid 1950s, not long after Partition from England, and the still painful split of India into India and Pakistan. This book tries to reflect the pain the people were still feeling, and the confusion in trying to create the identity of a post-Empire world.
The start was a bit challenging with so many characters rushing on-stage. I had differentiating them all from each other as they seemed to be a big bag of sons (successful or ne'er-do-well), daughters (married or unmarriagable, matriarchs and patriarchs. But something dragged me in and held me there. Perhaops it was the atmosphere of post-colonial India just coming to terms with its own societal complexities and the very effective tickling of my senses by Seth's settings.
The year or so covered by this gargantuan novel isn't exactly a day-by-day account, as there are several concurrent threads, but after three hundred pages or so (the size of a regular novel) I had a firm handle on who was doing what and how the threads were likely to intersect. I think this book just wouldn't have worked as anything less than a thousand pages.
The author manages to avoid dramatic temptation, working very much on the personalities and their interaction. There are some events of major consequence in the final quarter but no spoilers from this reviewer. I was thrown out of the flow just once or twice, particularly when two chapters ended with a similar homo-suggestive hook that I deemed to be a red herring.
A Suitable Boy has been my breakfast companion for six months. I recommend this book to anyone who has major reading stamina.
The high point is the exploration of communalist (Hindu-Muslim) strife, but even this isn't particularly acute. The passages on Untouchable shoemakers are told with a tinge of middle-class disgust and then forgotten about, whilst nobody would dream of committing sati over any of the dull prospective suitors. All the clumsy Dickensian caricatures are there: the weepy, unreflective mother; the sweet, thoughtful heroine; the clumsily portrayed oh-so-unviable suitor; the self-made man - but Seth's vaguely whimsical take fails to keep the momentum moving. Grotesquely overlong.
1) Beautifully detailed, defined characters who are smart and funny and touching and broken and deeply human.
2) Epic scope, from youthful romance to political intrigue to religious conflict to family dynamics to the political to the personal, this book seems to touch on every major aspect of human experience.
3) The prose is gorgeous but it also gets out of your way.
4) It's so deliciously long! ♥ I love a book that draws me in and then keeps going and going and keeps revealing itself and takes forever for me to finish. :D
On the whole I felt that Seth was writing for his own pleasure. Not a bad thing in itself, but it seemed like he became so enamoured with his research that he felt compelled to put every little bit of it VERBATIM into the manuscript with no regard for the reader. Did we really need to read about cricket in so much tedious detail? Or have the finer points of Indian constitution circa 1951 spelled out in quite so many words? Or be privy to the inner workings of the sister of the cousin of the wife of the rickshaw driver (I exaggerate, but only slightly)? The answer according to this reader is a resounding NO.
Other than that, it was a good story which gave me a good sense of life in mid-century India, with all it could possibly encompass and then some. The main characters and story were a joy to discover and spend some time with, which is why I gave it three stars (generous, considering how annoyed at Seth I was for refusing to cut down on word count).
The first thing I noted, was how human the characters seemed. They are wildly different; conservative or liberal, outgoing or shy, religious, atheist or even hedonistic, but noone is painted as plain good or bad, and at least I started to sympathise with almost all of them. Part of the reason of this is, of course, the sheer size of the novel. During the 1350 pages (in my edition), there is hardly a character with a speaking part whose thoughts the narrator does not let us glimpse.
On a related note, I was amused by the description of the marriages in the book. As a westerner, I almost expect a book with arranged marriages as a central theme to be largely condemning of the practise (most of them, perhaps correctly, are, after all condemning). However, the author lets us see that there are several sides of the issue. One of the happiest marriages in the book, the one of Savita and Pran Kapoor, is arranged, to the degree prior to the wedding, the two had only met for an hour, and even that was chaperoned. On the other hand, one of the few non-arranged marriages are between two of the least sympatic characters in the entire book! (Meenakshi and Arun Mehra). Of course, there are many other marriages, of varying success, so I do not think that the book can be read as a praise for arranged marriages, but these two really stood out to me.
The plot threads are many, most of them highly interesting, but a few of them not so much. I will admit to being bored by the sections detailing the sessions of court and legislation, but as they are a relatively small part of the book, the thrills of the search for a husband for Lata Mehra, the love life of Maan Kapoor (which contained the greatest surprise of the entire book for me), the worries of the courtesan Saeeda Bai or the career twists of Haresh Khanna makes up for it, when viewing the book as a whole.
Also, I must elaborate on the descriptions in the book. I am normally not very interested when an author starts detailing the scenery; I've been known to skip entire pages of the Lord of the Rings when Tolkien gets going. However, this book captivated me. Perhaps it is because the places described are so foreign to me, but I personally lean towards believing that the real cause is Vikram Seth's captivating language.
Despite these words of praise, I do not think it deserves more that 3 1/2 stars. The novel is as noted before, both by me and others, a large one, and I feel that it was too large. I believe that it would have been a lot better if just a few sections had been cut out, pairing it down a few hundred pages. I was, simply stated, bored at times. Yes, there are interesting characters and good language, but when we started to follow the political work of the main characters brother-in-law's urdu teacher, things started to become silly, and I had to force myself to read for about hundred pages (it got better, though)
When considering the overall quality of a book, I have to let size be a factor, I did not find the A suitable boy justified it's blown-up size. This does not mean that I regret reading it, it is still a good book.
I read the book in a week when I had shingles and I was so totally engrossed that I couldn't bear to come back to the "real world".
Of course, the question that keeps the pages turning is who will Lata marry in the end? Will her head or her heart govern her choice? I'm a romantic and wanted the former, my colleagues all argued that it should be the latter because Lata is Asian, and therefore pragmatic, after all. Of course Seth (the rascal!), keeps us guessing right to the end.
And I was open-mouthed in awe at the way that Seth juggles a cast of characters larger than I'd ever have thought possible (there's someone new on almost every page!) embracing a huge sweep of society. I felt as if I had been in India for that week.
The book is way too short. Perhaps that sequel is called for!
Why didn't this win the Booker??!!!
Aside from the length, the weight and the fact everyone kept calling it my encyclopedia, I really did enjoy it. the characters were interesting and not confusable.
If you're retiring and want to work on the classics or have a lot of spare time then i definitely recommend it. It can be a bit hard to motivate yourself to pick it up but keep going!
However, once you manage to forgive the author for stretching this out into a 1900 page book, it is an enjoyable and even thought-provoking read. The diverse themes of Partition, communal tension, politics, democratic reform, contrast between small town and metropolitan life, generation gaps and romance are balanced skillfully, so that justice is done to all. And Seth's wit, in the form of Kuku's couplets, for example, adds liveliness and hilarity to the novel.
Overall, a very satisfying read, though I wish I'd been able to get the version that is divided into two volumes!
2 out of 2 five* for Seth from me.
I would urge every serious reader of English fiction to undertake this pleasantly rewarding journey.
I accomplished my adopted goal for 2010, and rather liked the book. I can't tell you many of the specifics about the book because it is about 1500 pages long, and I read it over, maybe, 8 years. The generalities, however are:
*** wonderful descriptions of life in India, several urban and rural areas ... both big cities and little towns in the country, and in rich areas as well as extreme poverty,
*** explorations of the political system, and politicians,
*** repeated examples of the incredibly complex social customs of the country (at one point one of the daughters of the main family in the book asks if it is really necessary to send birthday cards to "third cousins, thrice removed"), and
*** many many other interesting stories and facts that make it quite worthwhile to invest 8 years in reading this book, unless you are a faster reader that McCall Smith and I are.