1990s Chunkster Classics

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

A SUITABLE BOY [A Suitable Boy ] BY Seth, Vikram(Author)Paperback 01-Oct-2005

Five words from the blurb: love, India, independent, struggle, destiny

After 10 months I’ve finally finished A Suitable Boy! It has been a strange reading experience as half the time I loved it and the rest of the time I was battling the urge to abandon it. 

The book is set in 1950s India and gives a complex picture of what life was like as the country struggled to adapt to its Independence. The main plot revolves around Mrs. Rupa Mehra trying to find a ‘suitable boy’ for her younger daughter, Lata, to marry; but it is much more complex than that. There is a massive cast of characters, each with their own subplot, and the book covers many different aspects of Indian politics, religious conflict, and family life. It is an impressive record of Indian history during this time period, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped.

The book had a frustrating structure:

  1. 30 – 50 pages to become familiar with a set of characters
  2. Enjoy them for about 20 – 30 pages before being thrown straight into the lives of entirely new group of people
  3. Repeat this process about 10 times
  4. After about 750 pages some of the different sets of characters start to come together (but by this point I had forgotten who many of them were and had to do some research!)
  5. Continue to add new characters
  6. After about 1000 pages finally understand what is happening
  7. Finally, after 1500 pages, experience a massive sense of relief that it is all over!

I might have enjoyed the book more if I’d read it quicker, but reading was such a battle that I dreaded the experience. I often fell in love with it 20 pages after picking it up, only to be thrown out of the narrative a few sections later. It was infuriating! I did enjoy the last 500 pages, but that still meant I struggled through 2/3 of the book. 

I normally love epic reads like this, but I think A Suitable Boy reinforced my need for a small cast of characters – I’d prefer to know everything about a few people, rather than a little about lots. Perhaps my struggles were compounded by the fact it reminded me of my favourite book, A Fine Balance. Mistry’s book managed to convey many of the same themes, but within a smaller, more memorable cast of characters. I wonder how many characters readers will remember from A Suitable Boy a few years after finishing? 

Vikram Seth plans to release the sequel, A Suitable Girl, in 2015. I wont be reading it.


21 replies on “A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth”

I completely understand where you are coming from on this one, Jackie. You know that it is the rare chunkster that I wind up loving to begin with, and I tackled this one a few years ago. I thought the “Jane Austen”-esque main storyline would really be something I loved… and I was right! But there was so much other stuff (including politics & history) that bogged the storylines I was interested in down that after about 230 pages, I just completely lost steam. It’s a book I would like to pick up and try again one day, perhaps after I make it to India and can appreciate the culture/country that is depicted. I can understand wanting to write a sweeping epic, but my feeling was that A Suitable Boy is many different novels/stories and perhaps Seth needed to spend a bit more time editing it down.

Steph, I didn’t have any trouble understanding the Indian culture etc that was portrayed (although I read a lot of Indian literature so probably do know more than most) but I found it so patchy – gripping one minute, then unbearably boring the next. I think this book would work better if you were actually in India when you read it – I hope you get there one day and manage to pick it up again.

Oh, people…

As Mr. T. once said, “I pity the fool, I pity the fool that can’t appreciate ‘A Suitable Boy’ – quit your jibber-jabber and suck it up, fool.”

I believe it was when he was on the panel for the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize, but I may be mistaken…

As I’ve mentioned before, ‘A Suitable Boy’ took me three months to read: sometimes I raced through sections, sometimes I was slowed to a crawl (the bit where it goes out into the country on the political trail), but nearly 16 years on from reading it many of the characters are still vividly etched in my mind, (Mrs Rupa Mehra with her ‘two sharp slaps’, Haresh with his two-tone shoes…) as are many scenes, even the houses where the characters live. For me it was a book which I inhabited completely and, yes, some bits were dull and I occasionally got frustrated by it, but then that is like life too.
Now, with Mistry’s, which is another of my all-time favourites, it would be the themes and the emotions that reading the novel provoked that I remember best, not so much the characters.
One day – maybe when ‘A Suitable Girl’ finally appears – I’ll re-read ‘A Suitable Boy’ and see if I still love it as much as I did the first time around. And hopefully this time it won’t take three months!

David, Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion on this book a few months down the line? Perhaps I’ll forget the frustrating times and just remember the story as a whole? I do vividly remember about 6 characters (and lots of the settings) but it still makes me wonder if the other 40+ characters were needed? Maybe I’ll have a change of heart on ‘A Suitable Girl’ once I’ve had time for things to settle in my head.

I’ve learned from experience that huge books work better for me when I read them exclusively over a shorter period of time, and I enjoyed the 2 or 3 months in 2007 devoted to A Suitable Boy… but there were definitely slower sections (mostly the politics). Although I remember only a handful of characters now, I look back on the overall experience fondly. I’m impressed that you stuck with it for ten months!

JoAnn, I’m sure you are right. I wish I had read this book over a shorter period of time. Next time I attempt a mammoth like this I’ll make sure I complete it faster.

It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it as much as you hoped. I read it over three months and the large cast of characters was actually my favourite part of it, I loved how the book felt like a panoramic of the whole of life.

Kudos to you – at least you finished it. I read the first 20-30 pages, loved it, then felt overwhelmed by the massiveness of it! Someday I will read it. But I’m glad to hear that you liked A Fine Balance better. I do have that on my shelf and maybe I should read that first.

Athira, I cut my copy into three bits (sorry for the shocking book abuse!) and that made it far less intimidating. I hope you get to read it one day and enjoy A Fine Balance as much as I did.

I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy A Suitable Boy. I’m reading it right now, and although I’m only on page 155, I’m really loving it so far. We’ll see if I start to feel bogged down as I go further, but right now it’s a joy to read.

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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