Archive for October, 2013

#21. A Suitable Boy

October 15, 2013 3 comments


I generally read short novels – no more than 300 pages – and short story collections. The last great novel I read (by “great” here, I refer simply to the length of the novel) was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, about five years ago. So taking on this huge contemporary novel – 1366 pages! – was something of a departure for me. I started to read it as a joke, to see if there was an author who could hold my attention for so long, and I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is set in a newly post-colonial India, that is, the country has been independent for just over four years when the novel starts. The central drama is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a “suitable boy” for her youngest daughter, Lata. But other dramas sprout from the relationships that the Mehra family has with other individuals and families – relatives, in-laws, and potential in-laws. The novel is as large, the network of relationships it explores as sprawling as India itself. Nothing escapes Seth’s patient hand: politics, religions, poetry, philosophy, love, the caste system, adultery, attempted murder, riots; births (there is a particularly moving and convincing description of the labor leading up to and the eventual birth of Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s second granddaughter) and deaths. Through it all, Seth creates characters by whom you are amused, dismayed, or disgusted, and for whom you are anxious, sympathetic, and occasionally grateful – because from each of their stories is a worthwhile lesson to be learned. My favorite characters are the fiery, eccentric, and beautiful women, but there is something to be said for the men too, who are by turns ambitious, uppity, generous, and mad. In short, Seth, with his cinematic descriptions and spot-on dialogue creates a world and people so real that you are compelled to keep reading, wondering all the time: and then what happened?

I am amazed by Vikram Seth’s fortitude (what must it take to sit and patiently write a novel 1366 pages long?), and also by his talent – there is no mistaking the poetic quality of many of his sentences, or his persistent humor. But far and above this, I am amazed by a novel that has got me to care as much about its literariness as its plot. This is a rare thing indeed for me.

Five stars.

Categories: Vikram Seth