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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 * **

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
Gormenghast
409
181,690
6/26/2018
8/6/2018
29
Moby Dick
643
206,050
8/8/2018
10/23/2018
45
Jude The Obscure
397
149,670
10/27/2018
12/10/2018
28
Titus Alone
224
95,120
12/11/2018
1/5/2019
18
Cloudsplitter
768
260,742
1/7/2019
3/27/2019
49
Power In The Blood
903
330,930
3/28/2019
6/28/2019
57
A Suitable Boy
1,349
591,552
6/29/2019
12/10/2019
103

**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.

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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Thanks John. This book really has mass appeal. Although it is a story of a particular place and time it is also a tale of human behavior, which is the same everywhere. It transcends culture. Particularly appealing is that it is written by an Indian, in English. I think you would like it.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 months ago from Queensland Australia

      What a great review, Mel. This book really had a positive effect on you. I once gravitated to the larger thicker novels, especially if they were by one of my favourite authors. Now it has to be a pretty special book for me to even open the cover. This certainly sounds like it is worth my time. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Ann, you are right there in the cradle of great English poetry, but even the English, and much less we Americans, admire and study your great poets as much as the Indians do. I think you would like this book. Thanks for dropping in.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 months ago from SW England

      Another interesting review, Mel. I find it difficult to find exceptional writing too, though I belong to a book club and someone occasionally recommends a gem.

      It's sad if we really do no longer have great 'English' writers, though I fear you might be right.

      Ann

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Linda, once you start looking for it it shouldn't be hard to find, because it is gigantic. It is definitely the ostrich in the bookstore, there among the little sparrows. I bought it on Amazon, probably used but in very good condition. Probably formerly owned by some ambitious matronly reader who took one look at it and fainted. After that she had to give it up for adoption.

      I hope you discover the book and give it a whirl. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Gilbert, I recommend that you take a push cart with you to the bookstore because it is a heavy one. Bring a friend, too, because it is definitely a two man lift.

      Thank you so much for dropping by.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Mills you stir up interesting food for thought. The Phoenicians wrote their books on stone. Beowulf was written on paper, as have most books before and since. Stone lasts forever, classics of the past have been copied onto more paper.

      Sooner or later all of our books will be written on digital medium. One big nuclear blast, one giant electromagnetic pulse, and there goes English Literature. The archaeologists digging through the rubble of our civilization will find nothing, and conclude that we were completely illiterate.

      Thank you for your great contributions. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      You are right, Pamela, I was enthusiastic about this book, it is in the top three best books I have ever read, which include War and Peace and Lonesome Dove. Well, maybe Anna Karenina is in there too. And to think I discovered it by pure chance.

      I really appreciate you dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      RoadMonkey, I can always count on you for having at least heard of one of these obscure books I review. I actually skipped the big philosophical lecture at the end of War and Peace, I just could not slog my way through it. I really loved the rest of the book, however. It reminded me of A Suitable Boy in the way it intertwines the lives of different families. I will keep that Irish book you recommended in mind for a future review.

      I really appreciate you dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      What I like about you Bill is that you are very concise. You don't need 1,349 pages to make your point. You might get a hernia lugging this book back from the library, so be careful.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting review, Mel. Your article has persuaded me to read the book. I've never heard of it before, but now that I've read your assessment I'll look for it soon.

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      4 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      I'm glad that "Suitable Boy," fired you up with a lot of energy, Mel. The page count may keep people from reading it, but Seth's work is certainly considered a gem by you. I don't care for cookie-cutter books either. They lack an effort of originality and sincerity. I'm always looking for good books to read. The next time I come across "Suitable Boy," (I haven't seen the book yet) I'll take a look at it.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      4 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I think English literature will be fine as long as people speak and write in what we call Modern English. Little of it will be exceptional, and so much will be forgotten. It would be nice to think that the best works of recent centuries will have the same staying power as Beowulf, but we won't be here to know for sure. I guess we'll just have to settle for you and others who believe that A Suitable Boy is as exceptional as you report.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 months ago from Sunny Florida

      This book review is excellent and I think you are more enthusiastic about this book than any others that come to mind. I very much appreciate your review Mel, and this book sounds excellent.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 

      4 months ago

      I had heard of this book and even seen good reviews of it but I often find that good "literary" reviews do not mean that I will enjoy a book, in fact, I tend to avoid books that have been promoted as "literary". However, I will now go and look for this book, as it sounds very interesting. "War and Peace" got a bit turgid towards the end and I just wanted to finish it. Ireland also has writers in English. You MAY enjoy "Thy tears might Cease" by Michael Farrell. It's many many years since I read it (probably 40), so I cannot guarantee that it's "great" literature, however, it has stuck in my mind as very enjoyable

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate book reviews from people I respect, so thank you for this one and all the others. You save me reading ten pages of junk when I pick up a bad book at the library. :)

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Yeah this book is a real good one, Preacher, just don't plan on going anywhere for awhile because this is one for the long haul. Great hearing from you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Well this time you have me hooked on a book. Your review here is entertaining, fun as usual and spot on writing. Hmm a book that will get me to gasp. Good enough for me.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Devika. I think you have valuable insights into the situation there. I hope you read this book, if you haven't already. Thanks for dropping in.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi Mel A Suitable Boy is one of the best reviews and just to think of the story itself is what most experience in that part of the world.

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