So let’s get this bit out of the way: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is a long book, even by my doorstop-loving standards. It’s more than 1,400 pages and took me almost a month to read. Going against my usual habits, I took a couple of breaks when I thought I was losing momentum, and that was a good thing. There’s a lot of story in this book, and it was good to let it settle in my mind a bit before picking it up again. Because this is a good story, one that is worth the time, but there’s a lot going on, and it’s not a book that suits a restless reader. But it’s also a story that’s not hard to dip in and out of, especially in the first half, when each section tends to focus on a particular family or group and could almost stand alone. After that first half, as the threads were more tightly woven together, I found the spell had been woven, and, for the most part, I was happy to be immersed in this world and didn’t feel the need for a break.
So it’s long, but worthwhile. But what’s it about?
The novel tells the story of four Indian families and their associates over the course of 18 months in 1952, not long after India became independent. The main storyline is that of Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s quest to find a suitable boy for her daughter Lata to marry. But although that story is the one that begins and ends the book, making it the book’s central narrative, there’s much more happening. The people in Lata’s immediate circle have stories of their own, and the people they know have stories, and so on. We meet people from many different walks of life, and we see how the political and social situation in India at the time affects each person.
Although there’s a lot going on, this book is not difficult. It reads like a traditional English novel with a particularly sprawling cast. It just happens to be set in India. There were some helpful family trees at the front of the book, which I returned to many times to keep the cast straight. And I consulted the Internet a few times for historical background on such events as the Zamindari Abolition Act. That consultation was mostly out of curiosity, not because I needed details to follow the story. If a piece of background is important to the story, Seth generally does well at explaining it. I got a little bogged down in some of the political sections, but I think that was mostly because I wanted to get back to Lata’s story. I could usually suss out enough of what was happening to follow the story, even if I didn’t understand the details. I was surprised when suddenly a real historical figure, Jawaharlal Nehru, had become a character in a book that, as far as I could tell, only included fictitious people in its cast of characters. We actually sit at Nehru’s side as he makes decisions about his own political future. (This section was the one point where I got stalled in the last half of the book. I seemed out of place, although the political part got more interesting when a major character was running for office.)
One thing that struck me as I was reading is how the particular and the universal often work together in novels. A great deal of what happens in the book is specific to its time and place and couldn’t happen anywhere else. So in that sense, reading A Suitable Boy is an education in 1950s India. It’s a way to get a sense of what life was like in this country that was just figuring out what it was going to be. Seth does not use the novel to either celebrate or excoriate. To me, it seemed like a picture, not a polemic. Or at least, when Seth gets opinionated, it’s about kinds of injustice that happen everywhere.
But I think this book is successful with readers all over the world because of its universality. Many of the characters’ struggles are not unique to India. Lata’s trouble choosing a spouse is certainly affected by her being an Indian woman in the 1950s, but late in the book, she explains how for her the choice was about who she wanted to be as she grew old. At its heart, her choice is not so different from many prospective brides today. In a similar vein, characters try to navigate relations with in-laws whose values are different from their own, grandmothers spoil grandchildren, women have affairs, young men seek success in business, students fret over exams, and poor people lose their homes.
There were so many characters I enjoyed reading about, but I don’t want to say too much because to do so would give away too much of the plot. The sections involving Haresh and his efforts to become successful businessman made me smile, and I enjoyed the Chatterji family and their couplets. I didn’t think I cared much about Saeeda Bai, but all the revelations at the end had me on the edge of my seat. And Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s comment about finding “a suitable girl” for Maan at the end cracked me up. I’d say that there’s the teaser for the sequel, but apparently Seth’s next book, A Suitable Girl, will take place in the present day.
Also, I’d love to talk about Lata’s decision at the end, but I’ll save that for the comments. If any of you have read this, what did you think?