Every so often, I consider dropping the star ratings from my reviews. After all, ratings are a convention, not a requirement. Novels like A Suitable Boy confound the one-dimensionality of a 5-star rating system and leave me stymied. This is a 5-star novel. It is also a 1-star novel. Do I split the difference, give it 3 stars? Or do I depart from tradition and leave it unrated? You already know the answer, of course, because you’ve seen the rating. But here’s why I did it.
My friend Arushi recommended this to me when we were chatting about our genres of choice and I mentioned that I enjoy postcolonial Indian fiction. She did not, however, mention that it is the size of a short legal textbook or one of the longest novels in the English language. I have nothing against long novels—War and Peace is sublime, and A Suitable Boy reminds me both of it and of The Count of Monte Cristo. However, whereas all three novels sport an impressive cast of characters, The Count of Monte Cristo at least revolves around a simple revenge plot. A Suitable Boy is a much more sprawling, diffuse story, and that posed some problems for me, particularly reading it now, the first weeks going back to work in a new school year during a pandemic. So this could be a case of “I let the novel down.”
There is no way I can summarize all the plots of this book in a way that does them justice. Suffice it to say, this is an epic story of several interconnected Indian families in 1951/1952. The main characters are mostly members of the Mehra family, comprising the widow Mrs. Rupa Mehra and her children: Arun, Varun, Savita, and Lata. Arun and Savita are married—the book opens with Savita’s marriage—whereas Varun and Lata are not. As Mrs. Mehra’s remaining unmarried daughter, Lata becomes a focal point in the novel: will she meekly accept the husband her mother picks out for her? Or will she defy tradition to marry outside her cast, perhaps even to marry a non-Hindu?
The religious and ethnic tensions present in India immediately following Independence and Partition is definitely one of my favourite motifs. Vikram Seth employs them so well here. I say this, I should note, as a white outsider who has a very passing knowledge of Indian cultures and religions, so it’s not like I really know what I’m talking about. Indeed, I enjoy that Seth doesn’t use much exposition to explain the meaning of terms that outsiders would find unfamiliar. Either you look them up or you pass over them, because he isn’t going to educate you. He’s too busy writing a love story that isn’t a love story (whether I’m referring to Lata’s story, Maan’s, or someone else’s, though, I will leave for you to figure out!).
Still, I just see this as one of the immense strengths of this genre of novel. We outsiders think India and have stereotypical ideas of spirituality that has been repackaged for us in the West. But if you dig deeper and actually read the literature that has come out of India, watch the dramas, etc., you begin to become aware of—even if you can’t quite comprehend—the impressive ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity on the subcontinent. It’s not just Hindu and Muslim. There are so many different groups, a dazzling array of cultures that the West has flattened and erased (both actively, through colonialism, and then through a lack of nuance in media and a disinterest in Indian voices telling Indian stories).
Seth attempts to rectify this by immersing us into Indian society. On the one hand, we have the familial politics: Mrs. Mehra scheming marriage while feuding with Meenakshi; Arun throwing around his weight; Maan butting heads with his father because of his infatuation with a singer. On the other hand, we have the political landscape of a country Britain created out of thin air and then basically said, “Well, you’re on your own: good luck with independence, wot wot, cheerio.” Although I’ll happily admit to not enjoying the political chapters as much as the more personal ones, their presence is valuable because they are a reminder of the dynamic and passionate events occurring during this time. India was a country in flux, a country not yet 10 years old, attempting to find its footing and prove itself. The tension is so palpable on these pages, and every grand political issue is personified in the struggles of the characters—from Pran’s academic conflicts at the university to Haresh’s drive to become a self-made man.
However, in some ways I feel like my outsider status leaves me unqualified to critique this novel properly. Like, I just don’t know enough about Indian politics, history, or its various cultures to grasp the implications of Seth’s writing. Is he progressive? Is there some subtle racism or discrimination in these pages that I don’t see? I don’t know—and, as I said recently in my review of The Water Dancer and have said before and will say again: this is why we need own-voices reviewers. And for all I know this book is fine and dandy—but at nearly 1400 pages, there must be some problematic shit in here that I’m missing, eh?
Let’s talk about that length. Did I read every single word on every page? No. I skimmed a bunch of it, all right? There is a lot of poetry included here that didn’t interest me. So, like when you get up while a movie is on and go to the kitchen without pausing it, half-hearing it in the background as you rummage through your pantry for that bag of chips you thought you still had until you remember you finished it earlier that week and were too lazy to go to the store to buy more, I cut corners. I’m fine admitting that, and I’m not sorry if I have shattered your image of me as a diligent, careful reader of fine literature. Nope. I shovel this stuff down my mouth like fried potato products, munching by the handful until I’m sick of it.
Seth himself is very aware of, and subtly mocks, the length of his own novel. At one point he has a character express a desire to write a novel that is like a raag:
… first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover its possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in with the beat … finally, it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.
Later, the same character, asked why his upcoming novel is “to be so long” at over 1000 pages, replies,
Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long…. I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring wedding and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.
As someone who recently re-read Middlemarch, I can sympathize with this perspective! That being said, if this is how Seth asks us to judge his lengthy work, I’m not sure I was avoiding people because of this book so much as because of social distancing. And holding up this book certainly was effort at times! Does this mean A Suitable Boy is bad?
Here is my verdict: this is a wonderful novel whose status as a classic is well deserved, but it is not a novel I enjoyed reading here and now in this moment. So we come to the ugly truth that underlies every review—the fact that the quality of a novel depends not just on the writer’s words but also upon the context in which they are received by the reader. In another time, another place, a calmer environment where I could have tackled this with more grace, perhaps I would rave about this book as I do War and Peace and The Count of Monte Cristo. As it is, I would definitely recommend this if it seems like your thing. Nevertheless, this is a commitment. Seth knows this; he did not write this to be read widely but instead to be read deeply, and I can respect that.
So that’s why I settled, ultimately, on 5 stars. Because I gave those other two books 5 stars, so deep down, I think the best version of myself as a reader would also give this book 5 stars. And I’ve been doing this long enough that I trust that extrapolation, and I don’t want people who use stars as a quick metric for quality to get the wrong impression. Ultimately, I do not think I “let down” this book as I have with some in the past—I think I gave it a fair chance, and I hope my review captures at least some of the rapt enjoyment I felt with portions of the plot and characters. But I can’t say I’m sad it’s over or upset I now have to find another book to read. Like many marathons, this one is most enjoyable as a memory of crossing the finish line.