Vikram Seth was one of those rare students who could pursue an education outside of—and, even in defiance of—the structure of school. After completing boarding school in India, he went to Oxford, where he studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE).
“Studied,” however, is a loose term at best—during his three years as an undergraduate, he attended zero tutorials and only 15 lectures, spending nearly all of his time reading, thinking, and writing.
Still, Seth must have had some faith in the system; after completing his undergraduate degree, he went on to Stanford University to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics. He continued to write poetry in his free time, gradually gravitating toward the university’s writing program to seek advice on his work.
He soon abandoned his PhD (he never completed it), choosing to follow his literary passions instead. Before graduating, Seth published his first novel, Golden Gate, a story told entirely in sonnets—580 to be exact. He then moved back to India and dedicated six years of his life to writing what became his most acclaimed novel, A Suitable Boy.
One of the longest novels ever to be published in the English language, A Suitable Boy clocks in at 591,552 words, making it 4,265 words longer than War and Peace.
Seth makes no apologies for the novel’s length. As he quips in the acknowledgements, “Buy me before good sense insists/You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.”
(He isn’t lying. A Suitable Boy weighs 2.5 pounds and did indeed strain my bag and sprain my wrists.)
Still, I shoved the book in my suitcase, lugging it home over the course of three separate vacations, calculating and re-calculating how many pages I needed to read to reach the halfway point, the three-quarters point, the seven-eighths point, the nine-tenths point, and, finally, the last page.
And yet, of those 591,552 words, not a single one is excess. In fact, it comes as no surprise that Seth was a poet before he became a novelist; the book’s prudent use of language is perhaps its greatest strength. Seth takes us on a journey across geographies and histories, all the while maintaining a poet’s careful, utter control of each and every word and its placement on the page.
The story begins with nineteen-year-old Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, as they search for the elusive “suitable boy” for Lata’s marriage. Their quest starts in Brahmpur, a town in the fictional state of Purva Pradesh. Desperately (and, in Lata’s case, grudgingly), they pursue the referrals of their friends and family, searching for potential suitors in Calcutta, Delhi and, finally, Banaras.
All in all, Lata meets three suitors, their diversity in religion, class, and aspirations reflecting different versions of what it was like to grow up in the early years of post-independence India (1951-52).
As the novel progresses, this narrative fades into the background, emerging to center-stage from time to time but, for the most part, co-existing with a series of subplots. The sheer number of subplots is astounding, and it’s what allows aSeth to paint a startlingly vivid picture of life in 1950s India.
Entering the lives of Lata’s extended family and friends, we see their stories unfold across a series of mini-worlds—most prominently, courtrooms, bazaars, farms, country clubs, palaces, and dining rooms.
Among others, we follow Lata’s father-in-law, as he fights a legal battle to abolish the zamindari system (a land revenue system that significantly disadvantaged peasants); her youngest brother-in-law, as he falls in and out of love with an infamous courtesan; her elder brother-in-law, as he struggles to keep the local shoe trade afloat; and her mother, as she works to preserve religious traditions and hold the family together in hard times.
No character remains a side character; each has an opportunity to take control of the narrative, allowing readers to see the world through their values and belief systems.
Take this excerpt, for example, describing Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s thought process as she reads a letter from her elder son:
“She was used to rereading her letters a dozen times, examining for days from every possible angle some remark that someone had made to someone else about something that someone had thought that someone had thought that someone had almost done.”
Here, in the dizzying chain of social connections, we feel exactly what it feels like to be Mrs. Rupa Mehra, the Quintessential Indian Auntie.
And here’s another one of my favorite quotes—from Mahesh Kapoor (Minister of Revenue) meditating on his wife’s recent death:
“The sunbird, as usual, was flying in and out of the pomelo tree; and, from somewhere, a barbet was calling insistently. Mahesh Kapoor did not know either the Hindi or the English names of the birds and flowers that surrounded him, but perhaps in his present state of mind he enjoyed the garden more truly for that.”
Here, we feel exactly what it feels like to be Mahesh Kapoor, to be powerful in the courtroom, powerless in the garden, and at peace with this balance of knowledge.
As you can imagine from the above quotes, most of the novel takes place in the minds of our characters. The story itself moves at a glacial pace, so it’s more for readers who appreciate language more than plot.
And, as forewarned, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book unless you have strong wrists. And a sturdy bag.
[Interested in A Suitable Boy but don’t have time to read it? You can listen to the audiobook instead—it’s only ~10 hours long. Probably a good option for this book, too, as Seth’s attention to language makes it worth hearing his words out loud.]