ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

A Suitable Boy Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere

Updated on January 20, 2020
Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere is a lowly, "untouchable" mailman, who humiliates himself reviewing books by those who look down their noses upon him.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is a superlative novel that will make you gasp, cry, and sometimes say "No effin way" out loud.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is a superlative novel that will make you gasp, cry, and sometimes say "No effin way" out loud. | Source

Books That Make You Gasp

You know you have an extraordinary book in your hands when you turn the page and read something that makes you gasp - out loud. Although I have gasped at the sight of a stunningly beautiful woman more than once, I gasped the first time I laid eyes upon the Grand Canyon and every time I have visited the Redwood forests, I have rarely gasped in the presence of the written word. The mark of a truly great storyteller is that he or she can make you gasp, not once but repeatedly, something like multiple orgasms but without the sticky mess.

Why don't we readers gasp more frequently, even while immersed in pretty good books? We don't gasp because we don't care. The author has not endeared us enough to his characters to make us gasp. When your son comes home scratched and bloody in the middle of the night and tells you he wrapped his car around a pole you gasp, your mouth literally drops to the floor because you care, he is family. When your neighbor's son comes home in a similar state you peek out the window, say "That's a pity," and go back to bed.

When the characters in these fantastic books die, or bear children, a tear sneaks from your eye, which you quickly wipe off with the napkin you had wrapped around your sandwich. You don't want some busybody to see and try to console you - that would be an unwelcome interruption of this marvelous reading experience. You cry over this tale because you have learned to really love these people - you feel their pain, you feel their joy.

Then, sometimes the truly great storytellers spring surprises upon you that make you say "No effing way," out loud. The forbidden expletive escapes your mouth right there in public, where there might be families with small children present. You let your "no effing way" fly, even though your beatified mother would have washed your mouth with soap for such a verbal transgression.

So when the most superb of superb authors drops a bomb on you in the middle of your lunch break you gasp, then you cry, then you say "no effing way," then you look around to see if anybody has seen you gasp, then cry, then say "no effing way," because this most superb of superb storytellers has woven his tale with such utter skill that you feel as if his characters are family - your family.

The mark of a truly great storyteller, like Vikram Seth pictured here, is that he or she can make you gasp, not once but repeatedly, something like multiple orgasms but without the sticky mess.
The mark of a truly great storyteller, like Vikram Seth pictured here, is that he or she can make you gasp, not once but repeatedly, something like multiple orgasms but without the sticky mess. | Source

A Suitable Boy Makes Mel's Grandma Roll In The Grave

I experienced all three of these phenomenon while reading A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. I gasped more than once, I cried a couple times, and I said "No Effing Way" out loud, there in the parking lot of a church where I eat lunch in my postal vehicle, within hearing distance of a school and preschool. The latter verbal faux pas was committed just once by me, close to the end, when Mr. Seth springs upon us who the "suitable boy" is. But the fact that I was enraptured enough by the tale to cause my dear virgin-eared grandmother to flop once or twice in her tomb, meant that the author of this wonderfully prolonged story had embedded me into the inner circle of his delightfully dysfunctional families.

It often reveals something about the essence of a great literary work to describe how a reader stumbles upon it. I was researching word counts for another Lunchtime Lit book when I found A Suitable Boy in a top ten list of the longest novels ever written. Because I was mired in an insurmountable backlog of books to be reviewed, I decided that such a behemoth would be just what the reviewer ordered. I immediately bought the novel on Amazon, and it delivered as advertised. Seth's magnum opus kept me occupied for months - for almost half a year it turned out, while I tended to that pesky, pending, piled up Lunchtime Lit logjam. A Suitable Boy did its job, I am now up to date, but I never expected to like the book so damn much. My only complaint is that it had to end.

I have read other gargantuan monsters, a couple real Brontosaurus books there in the serene shade of Lunchtime Lit land, but none of them effected me as this one did. Gai-Jin, by James Clavell, was a complete stinker, a massive, twelve hundred page waste of time and paper. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest had its moments, making me chuckle once or twice while reading, but I never gasped, I never cried, and I never said "No Effing Way" out loud. Truth is, I really didn't care about any of the characters in that ponderous, dreary tome. I was happy to be finished with both of those paperweights. On the other hand, although A Suitable Boy weighed in at a mind boggling 1,349 pages, I could have kept reading it forever.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
Moby Dick
Jude The Obscure
Titus Alone
Power In The Blood
A Suitable Boy

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

*Twenty other titles, with a total estimated word count of 4,472,373 and 647 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Mel Carriere's reading material is under the governance of a rigid caste system, where the "untouchable," throwaway dime novels he reads in the bathroom can never interact with the lofty "Brahmin" books he chooses for his lunchtime reading material. As such, per the timeless holy Vedas that govern Mel's literary conduct, Lunchtime Lit books are only read on his half hour lunch break, never taken home to be contaminated by lower order literature.

Superficially speaking, there is the question of proportions between A Suitable Boy and War and Peace. 591,000 vs 587,000 words seems too close to be coincidental.
Superficially speaking, there is the question of proportions between A Suitable Boy and War and Peace. 591,000 vs 587,000 words seems too close to be coincidental. | Source

Is "A Suitable Boy" the Indian War And Peace?

It is usually not an easy task to summarize a 1,349 page novel in a few succinct sentences, but in the case of A Suitable Boy this is not particularly difficult. In essence, the plot revolves around the quest of young Lata Mehra and her overbearing, perpetually weepy mother Rupa to find a suitable matrimonial match for her. There are three serious contenders for her coveted hand, and the novel's 600,000 word excursion ultimately reveals who the successful candidate will be.

The tale encompasses four families and the mostly amicable, but sometimes troubled interactions between them. Three of the households are Hindu, one of them is Muslim, but centuries of institutionalized superstition has not prevented the alliance and friendship between these clans and others - to a degree. In fact, A Suitable Boy is a fascinating exposé into how two diametrically opposed cultures have overlapped and integrated upon the Indian subcontinent, often with gratifying, often with tragic results.

Outside of the core narrative of Lata's often grudging participation in the quest for a suitable boy, there are innumerable connecting subplots, all set against the backdrop of post-independence India. In this setting we find Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to be the beloved Prime Minister of the fledgling country, presiding over a nation struggling to shake off millennia of deeply entrenched cultural roadblocks to become a modern democracy.

This weighty, multi-functional volume in our eager reading hands is a cultural travelogue through India, dealing in depth with the history and religion that are behind the subcontinent's social problems. For a Eurocentric, westernized reader like me it was an enlightening literary journey, but also a shocking exposure to the largely ignored narrative of a quarter of the world's people. The horrors of Partition were imparted, the scale and sanguine seriousness of religious riots unmasked. India is a land of intense religious fervor that often flares into deadly tragedies among these masses of beautiful, but easily provoked souls.

I was particularly fascinated with how the practice of purdah among upper class Muslims causes women, after a brief revelation to the outer world as children, to permanently disappear behind a curtain. If you seek an introductory primer that will give you insights such as these, an exposure to that unseen underbelly of the world, a mysterious place largely neglected by western readers, A Suitable Boy is a good choice. As a bonus, you will be treated to a completely riveting tale.

Almost from the start I began to draw parallels between this book and Tolstoy's epic War and Peace. Superficially speaking, there is the question of proportions - 591,000 vs 587,000 words seems too close to be coincidental. It is almost as if Vikram Seth wrote an extra 4,000 words just to boast that he beat the Russian Count.

More importantly, there are similarities in the detailed interactions among lofty families, notably in the area of language. In Tolstoy's massive book the noble Rostov and Besukhov houses all speak French as their langue maternelle. In A Suitable Boy, the upper class Indians also dialogue in a foreign tongue, speaking English almost exclusively, rather than their native Hindi or Benghali. Not only do these elite Indians look askance at those who not only cannot effectively communicate in the language of the evicted invader, they turn their noses when proper English slang is not employed. An informative vignette in this regard shows Prime Minister Nehru himself giving campaign speeches in very broken Hindi, hamstrung in communicating with the masses because English is his principal tongue.

Also like the cameo appearances of Napoleon in War and Peace, in A Suitable Boy famous personages in history drop in. A touching episode is when Prime Minister Nehru thrashes a servant for beating a young boy caught stealing mangos from his garden. Not only is the servant chastised, but the impoverished young thief is sent off with a box of fruit.

It was in Calcutta. And I said to the daughter, when did your mother read this book and she said well, when she was pregnant, and I said, then your head must have been flat when you were born, are you minded to sue me and she said no, not yet.

— Vikram Seth - Interview in Hindustan Times, on fan reaction to A Suitable Boy

Will India Save English Literature?

A Suitable Boy author Vikram Seth is a Benghali from Kolkata(Calcutta), the son of a shoe magnate and a judge. Being born into a relatively privileged status, he was in a position to contribute to the rich intellectual history of West Bengal, with its six Nobel laureates. Deep thinkers still seem to prosper on the subcontinent, though long supplanted in Britain and North America by commercial and cowboy culture.

Seth is a poet by trade, a dying art in the west, practiced largely here only by popular song lyricists that glorify gangsta lifestyle in vapid verse. Typical for the upper crust of Indian society, Mr. Seth took his upper level education in Oxford, England, where he read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Then, while completing a PHD in Economics at Stanford University, he became sidetracked writing a novel in verse, titled The Golden Gate. This led to six books of poetry and finally, to a work of prose on such a scale that it flaunted the constraints of meter and verse that are the bane of the bard.

Vikram Seth's biographical progression from scholar to poet to novelist serves to exemplify the sorry state of English literature. When was the last time that anything as expansive and breathtaking as A Suitable Boy was written by an Englishman, or an American, citizens of the two places that are assumed to nurture Anglo-Saxon language and culture? Instead of important, ambitious, thought-provoking and enlightening works like Seth's masterpiece, here atop the bestseller list in the West we get an endless stream of throwaway, cookie cutter serial killer novels. Because I have a side job in the airport, I frequently walk through the bookstores there with unjustified hope, but everything on the shelves looks and reads alike. It is an ubiquitous accumulation of low quality, uninspired fast food for the brain, the Jack In The Box or Taco Bell of the written word, brainless pap that squirts out the other end just as fast as you have finished.

Is India the last remaining place where any real thinking is going on, in English? To cite another example, a few decades ago I read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. By background, Rushdie is a Mumbai born Muslim, so he definitely qualifies as "Indian." His explosive 1988 novel was banned in India for "hate speech," and got a fatwa for his death issued against him by the Ayatollah of Iran. The Satanic Verses was a real heavy hitter, a book that rocked the planet for a little while, forcing Rushdie to live under police protection.

Maybe I am off base, maybe I am wrong, so somebody please remind me about the Englishmen or Americans who are doing anything as earth shattering, as important, as poetic, as daring, as literary, as Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie? Is India now the hearth and home of English literature? Have we surrendered our birthright?

Will India save English literature?
Will India save English literature? | Source

Epic Vs. Intimate

One would think that a 1,349 page book would qualify as an epic. But is A Suitable Boy truly an epic, and does page count have anything to do with that distinction?

The massive 587,000 word War and Peace often felt epic, with its expansive descriptions of battles of the Napoleonic Wars, but at other times it was very intimate. In contrast, Ray Bradbury's 46,000 word Fahrenheit 451 was epic on every page. It had a lot of very epic ideas crammed in there, compacted into a tiny space not even a tenth the size of Tolstoy's tome. The verdict - word count has nothing or very little to do with the distinction of epic vs. intimate.

Epics are noted for being long and sprawling, and readers of short attention spans easily become weary of them. But while A Suitable Boy mimics its predecessor War and Peace in being occasionally epic, it is more often intimate. This is why the page count could have run to 2,000, or even 3,000 words without alienating the reader. In fact, it was probably only the physical limitations of gluing such a mass of paper together that kept Vikram Seth from continuing his saga into infinity.

The good news is that the story does not end here. A Suitable Girl - Vikram Seth's overdue "jump sequel" to his 1993 masterpiece, is on the way any day now. Seth's fans are eagerly awaiting the outcome of this prolonged pregnancy, and you can bet that Lunchtime Lit will be on the spot, waiting in the maternity ward with a catcher's mitt so we won't miss it, when the book finally shoots out of the birth canal.

Epic vs Intimate. Does size matter?
Epic vs Intimate. Does size matter? | Source

A Mailman's perspective on "Untouchable" English - or Indian Literature?

It is fascinating to ponder how A Suitable Boy so profoundly affected this reviewer of humble origins. I am but a lowly mailman. I would probably be considered something of an untouchable in the rigid caste system of India, where the story takes place, a story populated by upper class, university educated Khatri and Brahmins, the loftiest levels of Indian society. It is a remarkably effective writing job that Mr. Vikram Seth did, making me care so deeply about people that would probably look down their aquiline noses at me. Nonetheless, I have no choice but to thank him for 103 beautiful lunchtimes, lunchtimes filled with gasps, tears, and unprintable invective that makes my grandmother's ears curl, 24 years there in her sainted tomb.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)