A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

Book #141

Reviewer: Naomi, of Create-Believe-Dream

I feel the need to start this review with a disclaimer: I love reading big books. I get out doorstoppers from the library and when purchasing books often look to get the most pages per dollar. A Suitable Boy clocks in at 1488 pages (if you’re reading the paperback version as I was) and is one of the longest novels published in the English language. This was the second attempt I have made to read it.

The author makes light of A Suitable Boy’s length both in the rhyming couplet introduction and more obliquely at a book reading within the novel:

‘… I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.’ 

Unfortunately this book falls into the ‘panting with the effort of holding it up’ category for me (especially as there is NO electronic version available, a glaring oversight by the publishers in my opinion…) But, to the story.

Best described as an epic novel, at its simplest A Suitable Boy is the story of Lata and the efforts of her family to find her a husband. On a broader scale it deals with the lead up to the first independent election in India after the end of British rule. Intertwined are the lives of four families. Spanning 18 months, the novel is divided into 19 sections each dealing with a different character than the previous section. This does make for confusion at points and I found myself often referring to the family trees at the beginning of the book to remember who was who.

There were some charming descriptions of characters, for example Mrs Rupa Mehra making gift cards by recycling cards she herself has been given. There were other moments in the novel, however, when the characters seemed almost un-humanly rational. When Lata finally wed her suitable boy she seemed to choose the suitor she liked the least and had the least in common with.  In fact for a large part of her narrative she had been almost derisive of him.

Much is discussed from a political perspective including land-rights, partition, the Hindu-Muslim struggle and the empowerment of women. Some of the 19 sections are set entirely in parliament sessions debating such issues. While interesting from an historical perspective I felt this element of the novel ground the pace of an already slow-moving narrative to a total halt. I also struggled to see how this contributed to the titular plot of the search for a suitable boy.

I am aware that I am critiquing a book that is beloved by many which is why I felt the need for the disclaimer at the beginning. It is not the length of this book that I found a struggle; it was the writing, which I found emotionally disconnected. A Suitable Boy is often described as a love story, but for me it read more like an historical novel written by a newspaper reporter. It left me, for the most part, completely unmoved which is the worst criticism I can ever make of a novel.

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2 thoughts on “A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

  1. Neha S April 9, 2014 / 4:57 am

    Though a bit lengthy but A great book to understand the agony and pain of an indian mother..the moment i heard it,i wanted to read this book. This book makes a great reading atleast for me..

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