Long Story Short
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Viking Penguin India, Orion (U.K.), Harper Collins (U.S.) 1993
Harper Perennial 1994, 2005
reviewed by Seana Graham
A friend of mine here in Santa Cruz realized a few years ago that his customary reading had kept him a bit unversed in longer books and decided to correct that by starting a “tome of the month” reading project. Every year or so, he’d inveigle a few of his friends to join him in this process. Although it’s now been a while since we all met, apparently his philosophy has seeped into my brain, because I’ve been going for longer works more recently myself.
Until this development, A Suitable Boy seemed destined to sit unread on my shelf in perpetuity. I have long been a fan of Seth’s writing, having discovered his book length poem, or perhaps set of poems, The Golden Gate many years ago. It tells the story of a group of friends in and around Stanford University, where Seth was a graduate student in economics, and San Francisco. I loved it for its evocation of the natural landscape around the campus, which is familiar to me, and for its poignant story. And later, I also loved his London based romance, An Equal Music. But coming in at close to 1500 pages, A Suitable Boy had seemed like a bit too much of a commitment.
A Suitable Boy uses a very simple but ingenious device. By setting up the question of who Lata Mehra, a young middle class Indian woman, will marry at the outset, Seth manages to string us along for about 1400 pages before giving us the answer. Once you’ve firmly set out on the journey, you aren’t likely to put the book away without finding out who Lata chooses. Lata’s dilemma actually only takes up a small portion of the novel, but by keeping us hanging, Seth is free to take us up and down and all around Indian society. At one end is the charismatic Jawaharal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. At the other, some of the poorest of the poor. In one of the most striking things about this novel, Seth is able to invest all of his characters with dignity and their own point of view.
Although Seth has said in an interview that he isn’t particularly a fan of James Joyce’s Ulysses (although in A Suitable Boy, he does make one of his most sympathetic characters a Joyce enthusiast), I thought I detected a bit of Joyce’s own predilection for mimicking as many different types of speech as he could. In Seth’s case, the variety extends from rhymed couplets, which the lively Chatterji family is addicted to improvising, to the dry and precise language of the courts and of government rulings.
The story is set in 1951, not long after the partition of India in 1947. One of the four interconnected families that form the backbone of this book has had to flee Lahore, Pakistan in the displacement that followed that decree and are still traumatized by the horrors that ensued. And the novel certainly acknowledges the Muslim/Hindu rift in a variety of ways. There is conflict, sometimes heated and terrifying and often unintentionally started. But one thing that struck me is how even-handed Seth is in describing each group. It is amazing that two such vastly different belief systems, one celebrating the absolute unity of God, and the other the plural manifestation of the godhead can live in harmony at all. And yet some of the most loving friendships of the book bridge this divide.
It’s a good time to read A Suitable Boy if you’re going to. For one thing, the BBC has a television series in production, which is said to be their first all Indian cast. (There are a few minor European figures in the book, so I am not sure if that will be entirely true.) And at some point soon the sequel to the novel is supposed to be coming out, at least provisionally titled A Suitable Girl, bringing the saga into the present day. Trust me, you’re going to want to be ready.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.