A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part One)

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. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

When faced with a wall of paper such as this (1474 pages), a choice inevitably presents itself.  Will it be worth the time and effort taken to read this, or would it be more productive to read a few shorter books in the same time span? Luckily choosing this Indian epic was the right option, and the time spent savouring this novel was well worth it.

When reading, I loved how it harked back in style to works of earlier ages. It was easy to draw comparisons with the Russian epics, and War and Peace in particular, as well as Moby Dick for the sheer level of detail that the reader never realised they wanted to know.

Although the story takes place in less than two years, and with its vast array of characters, it is very much in the spirit of those classics, treating the reader to a glimpse of life in post independence India. With the upheaval of the partition with Pakistan as a backdrop, social and religious tensions are explored but at the heart of the story its the family spirit, and myriad connections that gives the book its flow. An India, and a young generation trying to find its own way.

“Here in the library, lost in religion or philosophy or the speculation of astronomy even worlds might seem small.”

The blurb gives the impression that the plot is simply about Lata, and her overbearing mother trying to find a suitable boy to for her to marry. Thankfully, the story is so much more than that, encompassing everything from politics, to the local shoe industry, and plenty of rhyming couplets. It’s not a typical A to B plot but a view of life as a whole. An experience of India. It’s not a book you will want to rush through but rather enjoy the currents of the lives depicted.

The beginning of the book has all the extravagance of the openings of both The Godfather parts 1&2, it richly establishes the scene and sets out  relationships and hierarchies . There is also the darker undertone – at the happy occasion of a marriage – of arranged marriages, class, and racial prejudices and divides. All this and I was only halfway down page 16. This very generous scene setting is a great introduction and foundation to the wider story.

At around page 300, I came to the conclusion that I would have been happy for another 3000 pages, so caught up in the experiences of the characters did this reader become. I just loved the pace and the direction of each story, as well as seeing how interconnected all the characters were.  At Page 427, new characters were still being introduced – as they would continue to be for many more pages – in fact, well into the 500’s, I still felt that Seth was  still setting the scene.

Next post I will finish up this wordy review but an appropriate way to end this part would be to give you my non spoiler highlight of the book, and that would be a character with the name of Mr Biscuit.

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33 Replies to “A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part One)”

  1. Vikram Seth’s book An Equal Music is one of my favourite books ever and I have for ages felt that I really must read more of his work. I think I already have a copy of A Suitable Boy on my shelves somewhere….! 🙂

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    1. It will be easy to spot on your shelves with the size of it! I’m looking forward to more of his work when I come across it. It cost me just over a pound, which is a bargain for the amount of words.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hadn’t really considered Márquez’s work but I like that comparison, this would be one heck of a microcosm of one part of that work. I will post the next one either today or tomorrow!

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  2. This is what I was talking about the other day- knack for writing. Anyway, I will have to pick this book up one day- one because I had always wanted to; two reading this part review makes it clear that it’s my type of book, ones that I like to devour. So, yes, there it is. Waiting for the second part now.

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    1. You are too kind, my friend! I am happy to encourage your wish to read this, I had no idea what to expect, having not read enough Indian literature. I’m now eager to read more of Indian authors on my list. The second part will be here later today, or up now, depending on when you read this.

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  3. I’m intrigued to know something about Vikram Seth as well as about the book–I know I could look it up online, but I’m interested to see which facts about his life you would feel are most applicable to having been the author of this book in particular.

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    1. I know little about Seth, I tend not to read up much on authors’ lives. I’m about what they write foremost but if I am sufficiently impressed and have time I will read up on the author, or at least search for a book on the author which I much prefer to do over internet reading, not that securing a book of that type happens very often with all the other books about.

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    1. I was perplexed by thinking that, as I like to read books quickly so I can start another as I allow the former to sink in. At some point, I abandoned that idea and just went with it at my own pace. These days I read a lot of ‘cut out unnecessary details’ type of advice but here (and with Stephen King) it really works and I would welcome even more of both plot and minute details.

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      1. I remember when this book came out Somewhat counterintuitively, its very size was the thing that got everyone talking about it.
        Thankfully, because I’m also bored of all those tedious online ‘how to write articles

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        1. Detail worked for Tolkien as well, I really do wonder how many people take there style and cull it to something they think ill be ‘approved’ by the ‘market place’, Sad really. The size, for me is more of an encouragement to read, the challenge of finding time to read the huge books, especially the ones on the personal shelf is always a good thing. It got kids reading Harry Potter after all, and as we know that is the new benchmark of all literature.

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      2. I felt I had to add something here – I also have read a lot of ‘skip the details’ advice and know a few people who usually do. I cannot. I am sure the author says more about the book he/she is writing and more about themselves as an author in the details than in the plot. There are very few original/unique plots in literature. It is the embellishment of the plot that makes the novel.
        I was brought up reading 19th century literature which is usually packed to the gills with detail. Many modern books read more like film scripts – we are expected to fill in the details ourselves.
        I can understand the feeling of impatience when beginning a large tome like A Suitable Boy (which I haven’t read yet but will do soon, I hope). I have so many books I haven’t read yet and I am always eager to get on to the next one. However, once I get past those first few introductory chapters I become immersed in this wonderful new world the author has created for me and like you I savour every detail and enjoy meeting all the new characters.

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        1. I like that point about film scripts. It seems like the people dispensing the advice assume we readers have little attention span or don’t really wish to be drawn into a world of our imagining. More is not always better but when it is done right then it really should be celebrated. For some reason I always feel that impatience/worry when starting a new book despite a positive experience with plenty of books.

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          1. I also feel worried when starting a new book. I think my trouble is I have accumulated so many books but haven’t had as much time to read as I used to have. I worry in case I have made the wrong choice and struggle with a book I don’t like or am not in the right mood for and waste time. A really stupid thing to worry about! 😀

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  4. “At around page 300, I came to the conclusion that I would have been happy for another 3000 pages,” – yes! I’ve read this twice and it was just as good the second time. I’d love to re-read it, in fact.

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        1. It pretty much guarantees that you won’t need another book, with its size. I like books like that it takes the indecision of how many books to take away with you moot.

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  5. I was introduced to Seth’s mother the Late Leila Seth (also an author) by my father. She was quite a personality in politics and as a writer. I read his mother’s works which were primarily children’s fiction with my father and then I read the prodigious son. That made Seth, my favorite, through and through. Not just because we share the same last name (that would be lame) but this comes from my experience of having read most of his poetry books and then some other stand-alones.
    The Golden Gate blew my mind and that was back in college when I read only for pleasure. I realised with that book, the prowess Seth possesses. How he can make you read a 1000 pages without you feeling so. The Golden Gate is a tough novel, at least at the age of 18. But getting acquainted with his later works only made me chase him more. Now that is a quality I seek in every artist worth their salt.
    A Suitable Boy is a different ball game altogether.
    I am 500 pages through and still only sinking into the story. There are so many subplots, you tend to miss what’s happening, but the positive of which is you enjoy a different sub-story each time, something with a refreshed look. It isn’t challenging and is all the more challenging, all at once.
    I may not be making much sense here, but all I wish to add to your well-articulated review is that, I get a feeling that even at 1500 pages, a reader might still be ridiculously, asking for more, because one may not be left with a closure.

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    1. I just had a read up on her, she was one formidable lady. I love that you have a tangible literary connection with the family.

      I am intrigued to read more of Seth’s and as this one you recommend, I will keep an eye out for it. He is both an inspiration and also a monolith that makes me consider my own writing in a highly critical way.

      I was impressed with how long A Suitable Boy takes to establish the plot and characters, yet never made me impatient. There is so much to see here, and I found that even if a story wasn’t mentioned for a few hundred pages, it was easily recalled. I would have taken another book of the same size had he written a direst sequel, although I am excited for his ‘jump sequel’ A Suitable Girl whenever that comes out.

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