Maggie's Reviews > A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
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's review
Aug 06, 14

bookshelves: 1001-books, fiction, general-fiction
Read in September, 2012

** spoiler alert ** It took me three months, but I did it. I finished reading A Suitable Boy.

Not that it was a difficult or boring book to read; on the contrary, I was surprised that such a long book managed to hold my attention. I read every word, never finding the need to skim through any of it. Seth's writing is engaging and easy to read, even when he writes about politics or history. The plot, with all its ups and downs, is at times dramatic but never unrealistic, and very seldom mundane.

Although the premise of the book is about a girl and her mother looking for a suitable husband, this is really a book that has everything that can happen in India. There is history and politics, with India gearing up for its first General Election. There is religion, with constant tension and occasionally violence between the Hindus and the Muslims, and India and Pakistan. There is love, lots of it – passionate romance, steady love, budding romance, unrequited love, infatuation, fading feelings, doting love, wild uncontrollable love and sex, familial affection, forbidden love, homosexual love, adultery, overprotective love, arranged marriages, wistful love for the dead, and several other types. There are social norms and discrimination and class differences, between the rich and the poor, the Europeans (particularly the English) and the Indians, the educated and uneducated, the urban and rural dwellers, people from different castes, and people of different skin colours. There is birth and death and illness. There is nature and architecture. English literature, traditional Indian music, and Czech shoes all play a part. There is something for everyone in this book, and Seth's ability to weave it all together shows a great amount of research and an impressive understanding of all things related to India, and clarity of thought and writing as well.

But it was the characters that really drew me in. There are two main plotlines, one of Lata, stubborn yet shy, looking for a husband amongst her three suitors, with her dramatically emotional and controlling mother Mrs Rupa Mehra insisting on her choosing a suitable one, and one of Maan, son of the minister Mahesh Kapoor, and his torrid affair with the courtesan Saeeda Bai. Each of them has their own families with their own plotlines, and everyone in their families have their friends, acquaintances and enemies, many of whom interact with an even wider web of people. Yet Seth manages to give everyone in the novel a distinct personality, and when minor characters reappeared I seldom had any difficulty remembering who they were and what they had done. The characters were realistic, with all the major characters and some of the minor ones having both good and bad traits, and even the unlikeable characters had moments where the reader sympathised with them.

There are too many characters to mention in detail, but my favourites were Amit and Maan. Amit Chatterji, son of the judge Justice Chatterji, eldest of five eccentric children, brother of Lata's vain sister-in-law and one of Lata's suitors, attracted me with his sardonic wit, self-deprecation, humility, and genuine feelings for Lata. A famous Cambridge-educated lawyer-turned-poet, he had few friends, preferring to remain at home making fun of his siblings and writing under influence of his Muse. He was humorous and easygoing, but there was something darker in his poetry that never quite emerged in character. Lata eventually rejected him, and despite his disappointment he took it magnanimously, in keeping with his personality. Maan was a totally different character. Wild and unmanageable, he spent the greater part of the book courting Saeeda Bai to the distress of his family, drinking, gambling, and irresponsibly avoiding his business and fiancee in Banaras. Despite this, I liked his natural generosity and impulsive carefreeness, and even came to hope that good things would come out of his impossible relatioship with Saeeda Bai. I was touched when he reconnected with his father during the election campaigns, distraught when he was tormented at stabbing his friend Firoz in a drunken rage, and relieved when he was eventually acquitted and made up with Firoz. I admit that I initially disapproved of him, but he grew on me and in the end I was heartened by his maturation.

Much has been made of Lata eventually choosing the pompous yet down-to-earth Haresh. Certainly, he was the most boring of the three suitors, and many would have preferred her to choose Kabir, the Muslim (and thus forbidden) boy with whom she had a passionate relationship, or Amit, who was reserved about his unrequited feelings for her. But when I read her explanations to Malati at the end, I could understand why she chose Haresh. Amit was always out of the question, with Lata never returning his feelings. But Kabir? He may seem the perfect choice for those who believe in love above everything else, but in Lata's words, she was "out of control" with him, "utterly useless for anything". Her passion for him was too strong and too dangerous, and didn't gel with her usual restrained personality. She became someone else when she was with Kabir. Haresh, on the other hand, didn't impress Lata initially, but his steadiness, honesty, kind-heartedness and faithfulness to Lata eventually won her over, and she saw him as someone that she liked and might even love. He was someone that Lata could live peacefully and build a stable relationship with.

I enjoyed the poetry as well. My favourites were the Kakoli couplets, humourous and frivolous rhyming couplets that the Chatterji siblings, and especially Kakoli, spouted at inappropriate events. Amit's haunting poetry was nice, the bad poetry recited at the Brahmpur Literary Society was funny, and the lyrics of Indian songs were used to great effect. Even the acknowledgements and content pages were rhymed poems.

I cannot do this book justice. There is too much to say about it. I will probably never read it again as it is too long, but I urge you to read it if you haven't done so yet.

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