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.
The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.
In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.
At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.
As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.
Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.
Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!
A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Vikram Seth here
You can find more of my Recommended Reads here