Book Review: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Little, Brown & Company (Canada) Limited, 1994)

My copy of this book had 1,474 pages. It is divided into 19 sections. The actions of the story takes place over approximately a year, beginning and ending with a wedding. It takes place in three or four cities (and more regions) and has multiple family trees at the beginning to help the reader keep track of the many characters.

I personally believe that just about any book with more than 500 pages wouldn’t be hurt by some extra editing. There is quite a bit in A Suitable Boy about politics both local and federal and while it is a major part of the novel there are also many scenes that go into far more detail than I felt was necessary or interesting.

That said, this giant book is immensely readable. It’s many characters are fascinating, nuanced and easily distinguished. I soon found that I wasn’t consulting the family trees at all and it wasn’t hard to keep track of who was who or how they were connected. (They’re all connected.)

The book’s own description told me it was the story of Lata Mehra and the hunt for a suitable boy. We meet Lata at her older sister Savita’s wedding. Having gotten Savita suitably married off, their widowed mother now turns her sights to Lata. Lata is gentle but stubborn and has her own ideas of what she might want in a match. When she falls for a less than suitable boy, Mrs. Mehra whisks her off to Calcutta, determined to find her a husband. There is a lot more to this book though than a simple love story or the tale of two weddings.

There is the story of Pran and Savita, newlyweds who welcome their firstborn over the course of the novel. Theirs is an arranged marriage and we get to watch their love grow in a story quite different than what we might be used to as Western readers.

There is Pran’s irresponsible but endearing younger brother Maan who begins a relationship with a woman who might best be called a courtesan. This takes him away from Brahmpur and eventually into great tragedy. Maan’s story was perhaps the most dramatic and I felt that he had the greatest character arc over the course of the novel.

There are a dozen other characters, including Lata and Savita’s brothers, their sister-in-law and her eccentric family, the Chatterjis. There is the Nawab Sahib and his twin sons, friends of Maan’s, who offer a Muslim perspective of India in the early 1950s and following the partition of India and Pakistan. And there are a multitude of other characters who play their own parts and are written as full and complete people, each one unique.

And, of course, there is the political aspect. Much of the novel revolves around an important bill known as the “zamindari” bill, which seeks to reduce the power of wealthy landowners. In the later part of the novel, we follow India’s first general election. The characters fall on different spectrums of the political scene, some heavily involved, others less so but all effected in one way or another. The history and background here is interesting and Seth does a terrific job of making the struggles and issues real and important to the characters and the plotting of the novel. While I might have wanted less of the parliamentary scenes, it wouldn’t be the same book at all without these political aspects.

Religious divides are another important aspect of the novel and the lives of the character. Friendships are sometimes acceptable across these divisions – like Maan and his best friend Firoz – but never romantic relationships. Religious holidays and the building of temples are major sources of conflict in Brahmpur and there are some chilling scenes of what happens when these opposing sides clash. The descriptions of the elaborate Hindu festivals are fascinating and so different than anything that might be experienced in the Western world.

Overall, A Suitable Boy is definitely worth the reading investment and felt far more readable than many shorter novels I’ve come across.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth”

  1. I’ve always been put off by the sheer length of this one, but you make it sound very appealing! I do like a bit of political content in a novel and of course strong characterisation is a must. Hmm… maybe I could squeeze it in somewhere… 😀

  2. I have to confess that I read this quite a long time ago and never finished as I didn’t like it. But it is one of those books that I need to revisit and finish. Your review has inspired me to pick it up again not that I am older and hopefully a bit wiser.

    1. I liked it quite a bit though some parts definitely dragged. I hope you get a chance to try it again and hopefully enjoy it a little more!

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