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Review: A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

This gigantic book opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor, uniting their families (and a whole lot of related families) for the rest of the book, though they have barely seen one another before.  Part of the book revolves around Lata Mehra’s search for a suitable boy (hence the title), which her mother mainly controls, although Lata appears to be innately drawn towards the unsuitable boys.  Another character, Maan, begins the novel as quite a superficial young man, not really interested in his business or his father’s role in government, mostly drawn to women, but he grows to become surprisingly lovable.  And there are political forces at work throughout India, which is very newly independent and partitioned from Pakistan; struggles between Hindus and Muslims, between governmental parties, between the city and the countryside.  Not only is the book immense, but so are the themes it covers.

This book probably took me the longest of any book I’m going to read this year, but I did it on purpose.  It’s almost 1500 pages long (so it might be the actual longest book as well) and I attempted to spread it out over two weeks, although once I got towards the end I just read on to see what happened.  I really, really enjoyed it.  It’s properly satisfying and immersive as just such a chunkster should be.  I did have my favorite parts, mostly to do with Lata and Maan (which is totally why they’re in my summary) and I also really liked the relationship between Pran and Savita, which goes from them barely knowing one another to a very sweet love.  The book takes place over about a year’s time in India in the 50’s, so a ton of political action is happening.  India is trying to define itself without the British, without part of its territory, and the process is messy.

I will admit that I found most of the political sections boring.  I wasn’t really interested in the bills they were passing or all the arguments that went on.  I felt like I could get what was happening from the parts that took place in the countryside, which I enjoyed more anyway, and which certainly had more of a human touch to them as we could see what various laws and decisions were taking effect.  The actual politics don’t take up much of the book, but I definitely began skimming those parts toward the end to get back to the characters I cared about.  I also was occasionally confused by how the characters classified themselves.  I didn’t know the difference between people from various regions or castes and there was no way I could tell a Muslim from a Hindu by their names.  I knew there was a caste system, but I guess I didn’t realize that it still existed so much fifty years ago, and I wonder how prevalent it is now.  I was also really surprised at how much the color of skin was an issue.  I was startled each time Mrs Rupa Mehra worried she was going to have a black grandchild and sought out a fair-skinned husband for Lata as a result.

It was wonderful to live in this book for a little while, and I already find that I miss many of the characters and I want to know what happened next.  I was somewhat dissatisfied with one aspect of the ending, but that’s not enough to make me dislike the rest of the book.  I’m very glad I read it and it had me thinking about India’s independence, a topic I was never really all that interested in before, maybe just because I never had reason to be.  But at its core, this is still a novel about people and that’s why I really loved it.  The characters are fully fleshed out and experience the full gamut of emotions; almost everything you could imagine happens in this book.  I felt like I could have easily lived among them and become friends with them in real life, and Vikram Seth let me for the space of these pages.  I’m very glad I have An Equal Music in my TBR piles at home, and I can imagine myself picking it up very soon.

A Suitable Boy is a huge, fantastic read with, to me, both a foreign and a very familiar focus.  It was well worth the time I spent reading it and it’s a great start to my ongoing attempt to read outside of my comfort zone.

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16 comments to Review: A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

  • Wow–straight off the bat I am scared of this book due to the sheer length of it. I am such a coward!
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..East of Eden–part 1 =-.

  • I rarely read chunksters because, honestly, they scare me (short attention span). However, I found this one on a sale table for 50 cents recently, and I had to have it. In light of your review and Eva’s over at A Striped Armchair, I plan to dive into it this year–scared or not!
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..Woolf in Winter: The Belated Celebration =-.

  • Congratulations on finishing such a long book! I really want to read this sometime soon, but it is so long! Hopefully I’ll get round to it in the next few months.
    .-= Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last blog ..Evil in Fiction – Guest Post by Pauline Melville =-.

  • I really never knew what this book was about until now. Thank you for your review, Meghan. One of these days I’ll have to give it a try. The size is a bit intimidating, I confess.
    .-= Literary Feline´s last blog ..Review: The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia =-.

  • Wow! That sounds so good, but the thought of tackling a 1500 page book sounds daunting right now. It sounds like it’s well worth it, though.
    .-= Kathy´s last blog ..Review: Lone Star Legend =-.

  • I read this one about five years ago, and felt much the same way as you did about it. It was one of the first works of Indian fiction I had read, and I ended up heavily skimming over the political parts, just as you did. I think you did a great job with this review and I am really glad that you loved the book. It is one of those reads I never forgot, and whenever I hear someone has read it, it makes me smile.
    .-= zibilee´s last blog ..The Believers by Zoë Heller – 352 pgs — Giveaway! =-.

  • Great review! I read A Suitable Boy during the summer and felt very similar about the political sections of the novel.

    I am looking forward to reading A Suitable Girl when it comes out…due for publication in 2013.
    .-= Tricia´s last blog ..Misery in Suburbia =-.

  • I really should read this book, just been intimidated by its size always…I am scared that I will stop mid-way.

    Maybe I will give it a go for the South Asian writers challenge
    .-= Nish´s last blog ..Phir Mile Sur is Really Disappointing! =-.

  • I’m so glad you liked it, it’s the one book I really feel deserves to be loved because of the massive effort Seth puts into keeping what is a tricky subject and structure entertaining and light. It could so easily be dry and hard to follow with all those family members floating around. As for the politics, I find Indian political history so confusing one book won’t do it for me, I have to have the same knowledge reinforced at least three or four times before it will really stick, but I guess that just encourages me to read more books about India.

    I know you have ‘An Equal Music’ (fantastic) but I’d also like to put in another recommendation for his novel in verse ‘The Golden Gate’, which I think doesn’t get as much love as the other two novels despite being wonderful.

  • Sounds fantastic. I have always had a fascination with India and Indian independence. I guess I’m going to have have put this on my radar, if not on my shelf. If I ever get enough reviews stacked up waiting to be posted, I’ll read this one. I have to check out An Equal Music too.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Review: The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale =-.

  • Yay for getting to the finish line! A Suitable Boy is one of my most favourite books of all-time. So entertaining. You’ll be surprised how different An Equal Music is. :)
    .-= claire´s last blog ..I’ve Moved =-.

  • do you ever feel guilty about skimming? I started to skim a little with Blue Notebook, but then felt like I might miss something and went back. I’ve got this book on Mt. TBR, but I probably won’t be able to get to it this year. I usually like the political stuff, so that picques my interest, actually. I’m glad you finished and enjoyed it :-)
    .-= The Kool-Aid Mom´s last blog ..She Is Too Fond of Books ~ The Kool-Aid Flavor of the Week =-.

  • This is one of my favorite books ever. I’ve even read it twice :-). The first time was when it came out (15 years ago?) and I enjoyed re-reading it last year.
    .-= Valerie´s last blog ..FreeVerse: “War Symphony” by Chen Li =-.

  • 1500 pages?!?!? ZOMG

    That is all. ;)
    .-= heidenkind´s last blog ..Faith & Fidelity by Tere Michaels =-.

  • I read “A suitable Boy” over a time span of 10 years,stopping & starting.Now i have at last finished it.It`s a great epic,long-winded though it is,at the same time extremely beautiful & i was sooooo disappointed by the abrupt end,& expected a beautiful end to such a masterpiece.Unfortunately,that`s my view.

  • You should see my copy of A Suitable Boy, all tattered and complaining. I should probably get a second copy because i re-visit it from time to time. I find the politics complicated because i’m a visitor to all things Indian. The Chatterji family is my favourite, such temperamentally different children at the dinner table! The book gave me the confidence to try other books by Indian authors, such as The Death of Vishnu. I even have Cinema My Take, a blog on Hindi cinema now.
    Nonqaba waka Msimang´s last post …Cinnamon Chicken