Suitable Boy

( 33 )

Overview

Vikram Seth's novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in ...

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Overview

Vikram Seth's novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Surrender to this strange, beguiling world and be swept away on the wings of story....It is difficult to imagine that many contemporary writers could give us a novel that provides so much deep satisfaction.
Kirkus Reviews
Set in newly independent India, Nehru's early 1950's, this adipose saga counterbalances a book of social manners—the marrying off of a well-to-do educated young woman, Lata Mehra—with a historical account (even at the level of transcribed parliamentary debate) of the subcontinent trying to find its societal bearings vis-…-vis language, religion, and the redistribution of estate-lands taken off the hands of the elite. Set mainly in Brahmpur, the story encompasses four well-off families, with a focus mostly on the younger members—poets, academics, playboys, newlyweds—who stitch a pattern of peccadillo through their elders' expectations. Meanwhile, Seth, whose California novel in verse, The Golden Gate (1986), was clever and energetic in concept but dull and soapy in final effect, falls into the same trap here: lots of stuff obviously—at a marathon 1300-plus pages—but characters made out of clich‚, with background-India the very stuffed pillow of local color that keeps them standing. The book, too, fairly squeaks with its own pleasure in itself, larded with poetry and a general recommendation of art over politics and money: the characters it spends the most time over are narcissists. Anyone wanting to read how a marriageable daughter can X-ray a whole society ought to let this cream-puff-wrapped-in-a-cinder-block pass and return to Tanizaki's classic Japanese masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters. Fat (the publishing world's delayed reparation for Rushdie's Satanic Verses?) but fatuous. (First printing of 100,000; Book-of- the-Month Dual Selection for May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060786526
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Series: Perennial Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 1488
  • Sales rank: 122,625
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 2.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth has written acclaimed books in several genres: verse novel, The Golden Gate; travel book, From Heaven Lake; animal fables, Beastly Tales; epic fiction, A Suitable Boy. His most recent novel, An Equal Music, was published in 1999. He lives in England and India.

Biography

Vikram Seth was born in India and educated there and in England, California, and China. He has written acclaimed books in several genres: verse novel, The Golden Gate; travel book, From Heaven Lake; animal fables, Beastly Tales; epic novel, A Suitable Boy. His most recent novel, An Equal Music, was published in 1999.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Seth:

"I used to like swimming in the Serpentine, even in the snow, but lately I've chickened out."

"I enjoy Chinese calligraphy, which I have been studying for years."

"On the whole, I'm quite lazy, and like watching Columbo or reading detective stories."

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    1. Hometown:
      Delhi, India; and Salisbury, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 20, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Calcutta, West Bengal, India
    1. Education:
      B.A., Oxford University, 1975; M.A., Stanford University, MA 1978; Nanjing University Diploma, 1982

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

'You too will marry a boy I choose,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn. 'Hmm,' she said. This annoyed her mother further.

'I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?' Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive: the robust, cheerful form of his early forties before overwork had brought about his heart attack at the height of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.

'Now, now, Ma, you can't cry on Savita's wedding day,' said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother's shoulder.

'If He had been here, I could have worn the tissue-patola sari I wore for my own wedding,' sighed Mrs Rupa Mehra. 'But it is too rich for a widow to wear.

' 'Ma!' said Lata, a little exasperated at the emotional capital her mother insisted on making out of every possible circumstance. 'People are looking at you. They want to congratulate you, and they'll think it very odd if they see you cryingin this way.'

Several guests were indeed doing namasté to Mrs Rupa Mehra and smiling at her; the cream of Brahmpur society, she was pleased to note.

'Let them see me!' said Mrs Rupa Mehra defiantly, dabbing at her eyes hastily with a handkerchief perfumed with 4711 eau-de-Cologne. 'They will only think it is because of my happiness at Savita's wedding. Everything I do is for you, and no one appreciates me. I have chosen such a good boy for Savita, and all everyone does is complain.'

Lata reflected that of the four brothers and sisters, the only one who hadn't complained of the match had been the sweet-tempered, fair-complexioned, beautiful Savita herself.

'He is a little thin, Ma,' said Lata a bit thoughtlessly. This was putting it mildly. Pran Kapoor, soon to be her brother-in-law, was lank, dark, gangly, and asthmatic.

'Thin? What is thin? Everyone is trying to become thin these days. Even I have had to fast the whole day and it is not good for my diabetes. And if Savita is not complaining, everyone should be happy with him. Arun and Varun are always complaining: why didn't they choose a boy for their sister then? Pran is a good, decent, cultured khatri boy.'

There was no denying that Pran, at thirty, was a good boy, a decent boy, and belonged to the right caste. And, indeed, Lata did like Pran. Oddly enough, she knew him better than her sister did--or, at least, had seen him for longer than her sister had. Lata was studying English at Brahmpur University, and Pran Kapoor was a popular lecturer there. Lata had attended his class on the Elizabethans, while Savita, the bride, had met him for only an hour, and that too in her mother's company.

'And Savita will fatten him up,' added Mrs Rupa Mehra. 'Why are you trying to annoy me when I am so happy? And Pran and Savita will be happy, you will see. They will be happy,' she continued emphatically. 'Thank you, thank you,' she now beamed at those who were coming up to greet her. 'It is so wonderful--the boy of my dreams, and such a good family. The Minister Sahib has been very kind to us. And Savita is so happy. Please eat something, please eat: they have made such delicious gulabjamuns, but owing to my diabetes I cannot eat them even after the ceremonies. I am not even allowed gajak, which is so difficult to resist in winter. But please eat, please eat. I must go in to check what is happening: the time that the pandits have given is coming up, and there is no sign of either bride or groom!' She looked at Lata, frowning. Her younger daughter was going to prove more difficult than her elder, she decided.

'Don't forget what I told you,' she said in an admonitory voice.

'Hmm,' said Lata. 'Ma, your handkerchief's sticking out of your blouse.'

'Oh!' said Mrs Rupa Mehra, worriedly tucking it in. 'And tell Arun to please take his duties seriously. He is just standing there in a corner talking to that Meenakshi and his silly friend from Calcutta. He should see that everyone is drinking and eating properly and having a gala time.'

'That Meenakshi' was Arun's glamorous wife and her own disrespectful daughter-in-law. In four years of marriage Meenakshi's only worthwhile act, in Mrs Rupa Mehra's eyes, had been to give birth to her beloved granddaughter, Aparna, who even now had found her way to her grandmother's brown silk sari and was tugging it for attention. Mrs Rupa Mehra was delighted. She gave her a kiss and told her:

'Aparna, you must stay with your Mummy or with Lata Bua, otherwise you will get lost. And then where would we be?'

'Can't I come with you?' asked Aparna, who, at three, naturally had views and preferences of her own.

'Sweetheart, I wish you could,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra, 'but I have to make sure that your Savita Bua is ready to be married. She is so late already.'

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Reading Group Guide

In mid-century India, Mrs. Rupa Mehra is on a quest. Her youngest daughter Lata remains unmarried, and the widowed Mrs. Mehra has decided to rectify the condition by enlisting friends and relatives to help her find Lata "A Suitable Boy."

Families form the backbone of the novel, as the story revolves around four deeply intertwined clans, three Hindu and one Muslim. The Kapoors represent the Hindi-speaking elite, gaining ascendancy through politics, while the middle-class, Anglicized Mehras firmly believe in the superiority of convent schools, English literature and proper manners. The Chatterjis, eccentric and rather scandalous members of the Bengali intelligentsia, indulge in rhyming couplets and coddle a manic dog named Cuddles, as the Muslim, landowning Khans face legislation that threatens to dissolve their culture and Urdu language along with all feudal land-holdings.

Through these people, Vikram Seth vividly recreates life in post-colonial India, a subcontinent trying to find its bearings, and to reconcile differing religions and languages in one national identity, as it stands on the brink of its first general election. A Suitable Boy is both social satire and social history, a novel whose scope ranges from the politics of a great man to the maneuvering of a mother, from an epic account of a nation at infancy to the torment of a young girl in love.

Questions for Discussion

1. Consider Maan Kapoor's love for Saeeda Bai, and that of Lata Mehra's for Kabir Durrani. Why are these relationships highly unsuitable? In what ways do Lata's three suitors, Kabir, Amit and Haresh, represent three vastly different aspects of love, and equally different options for her future? Did Lata have a choice when she accepted Haresh Khanna, a man "as solid as a pair of Goodyear Welted shoes"? How does the novel navigate the conflict between culturally conservative 50s India and the young people trying to break free of the existing system without dishonoring their parents?

2. What criteria does Rupa Mehra use to assess potential prospects for Lata? How does each of the seven candidates compiled by Kalpana Gaur fare? Were you surprised by her prejudices? How do Lata and her mother eventually come to agree upon the same candidate?

3. The stampede at Pul Mela leaves Dipankar Chatterji's search for, "great concepts and great gods" severely shaken. "Baba, how do you explain all this?" he asks a guru, who mildly replies, "I think there was a flaw in the administrative arrangements." Do you think the guru speaks for the author at that moment? How is religion portrayed in A Suitable Boy?

4. Two political-historical events figure prominently in A Suitable Boy: the Zamindari Abolition Act, whereby all feudal land-holdings were dissolved, and the general elections held in 1952, the largest democratic election ever held in the world at the time. How do these two events symbolize the transformation of India into a modern nation?

5. Consider the central dialectic of the novel: the tension between established social order and the centrifugal forces that threaten to fragment that order. What disruptive forces did the old social structure of Rajas and Zamindars face? From landowners faking records to electioneering misdeeds, what other forces attempt to fragment the new social order? Is there an overriding philosophy in the novel that makes constant turmoil bearable? Does traditional, neglected old Mrs. Kapoor's faith, which does not undermine other creeds, provide a template for harmony?

6. Maan Kapoor thinks that for his own sake, Rasheed must "see the world with all its evil in a more tolerant light. It was not true that one could change everything through effort and vehemence and will. The stars maintained their courses despite his madness, and the village world moved on as before, swerving only very slightly to avoid him." How does this theme, of cosmic indifference to the desires of man, echo throughout the novel? In what manner does Rasheed exemplify of the futility of assuming otherwise?

7. Although Gandhi passed a constitutional provision abolishing untouchability, the results were more symbolic than practical. However, the untouchable shoemaker, Jagat Ram believes "that the victory for its formulation lay less with Mahatma Gandhi, who rarely concerned himself with such legalisms, than with quite another - and equally courageous - man." Who does Jagat Ram believe in? How does this character break taboos by refusing to be cowed by social proprieties, and simply following his innate decency? Why is this method for social change more effective than Rasheed's?

8. How would you describe the friendship between Maan Kapoor and Firoz Khan? Are there signs that they may be more than friends? Do they represent hope for amicable relations between differing religions? How does Maan's evolution from callow youth to a thoughtful, repentant adult embody the notion that salvation lies in the private world of marriage and family?

9. Could the Raja of Marh's attempt to raise the Shiva-linga be viewed as a metaphor? In a chapter that includes a tragic misunderstanding between Lata and Kabir, the self-serving machinations of Professor Mishra, Waris Khan's slanderous election posters, and Mahesh Kapoor's crushing defeat, what is the significance of the last sentence - "the Shiva-linga rested on the bed of the Ganga once more, the turbid waters passing over it, its bloodstains slowly washed away?"

10. How does the author's use of a third-person, fully-omniscient narrator successfully convey an intricately variegated, yet determinedly un-exotic, Indian reality? Consider the author's wry, affectionate, self-deprecating poetic word of thanks to the reader. Is it possible to extrapolate the author's point of view from the style and tone of these lines of verse?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 33 )
Rating Distribution

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(26)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2005

    A Suitably Good Read

    This was a most incredible book. It was so fascinating on a cultural level i.e., the Indian culture explained to a non-Indian in terms that one could relate to. In addition, it was a terrific story with some wonderful characters. Some things that happen in life happen to everyone cross the board no matter what your cultural heritage and this book is proof that we all have shared experiences. My daughter read it an passed it on to me and I in turn passed it on to numerous friends who have enjoyed it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2006

    An Exellent Read

    Seth's fluid style of writing provides for an interesting and captivating novel. His use of character developement and the way he ties the people and places together is commendable. It is a bit heavy with it's 1474 pages and the political chapters (about two of them) are a bit boring, but overall it was a great book. Very high praise for A Suitable Boy

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2005

    Engrossing family saga

    I read this book when it first came out (I think the mid- to-late 1990s) and could not put it down (could hardly lift it up, too, it's a BIG book). Wonderful, engrossing story and characterizations. If you want to dive in and lose yourself in the lives of people that seem to become real rather than remain fictional, this is the book in which to do it. Highly recommended. Enjoy!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2005

    Compulsory Reading - The very best of books

    If there was a book that everyone should read this is it, one of the most amazing books I have ever read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 12, 2014

    This was one of the best books I have ever read.  The characters

    This was one of the best books I have ever read.  The characters a believable, and the cultural background, absorbing. 

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  • Posted March 25, 2013

    This was a beautifully written book full of life and color. Alth

    This was a beautifully written book full of life and color. Although it was long, it maintained my interest throughout. Definitely recommend for those wanting a taste of something exotic.

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  • Posted July 31, 2012

    EXCELLENT read,

    I like the way this plays out. About four families in India that live mostly in older times. A long book that will take some time but it has a wonderful story line. Author is a great story teller. keeps your interest peaked.

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  • Posted July 29, 2011

    A Saga That Will Stay With You

    I feel as though Indian novels are wonderful opportunities for rich culture, complex interpersonal relationships, great comedy, and profound moral and ethical challenges. This novel has all of that. The stories, "sights" (in my mind's eye), smells (again), textures, and tastes have all remained with me long, long after I finished the book. Vikram Seth allows the characters to make realistic choices, rather than storybook choices, and that makes me respect this novel all the more.

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  • Posted January 12, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Long, but definitely a unique read

    Definitely one of the longest novels I have ever read (1349 pages). This book is one of the books on the BBC's Top 100 books list. It took me until about page 400 to become interested in this book, so it is a little slow starting. A book I recommend readers not to try and read through one sitting, because this book is best broken up. The setting of the book is India. The plot of the book is that a mother is searching for a suitable boy to marry her daughter (Lata); therefore, readers follow her journey through four families over a span of a year and a half. The novel is divided into 19 parts based on whose story line the readers is reading. At times it can get confusing, and at time one can definitely become overwhelmed with all the details portrayed in this book. For me, the book was definitely about 400 pages too long, but the book definitely tested my reading endurance. However it is through the details that the reader is immersed into the Indian culture and politics. Personally I would have chosen a different suitor for Lata. I have been informed that a sequel to this book is coming out soon called A Suitable Girl.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2010

    One of the best books I've ever read!

    It took me a month and a half to read this book, and every time I opened it it was like going on an amazing vacation. I was so sad when I finished it and had trouble finding something else to read because it was that good. By the end the characters felt like close friends and I missed them for the first few days after I finished it. I plan on reading it again. Definitely worth the time spent on this book. For me it's in the War and Peace category of amazing books!

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Will She Or Won't She?

    We are fortunate to have a paperback reissue of this extraordinary novel, the tale of the search for a suitable husband for a marriageable Hindu girl, Lata Mehra, set during the period shortly after the bloody partition of India. Fortunate not only because of the pleasure of rereading this book, but also because this is a version the reader might actually be able to carry to the beach, unlike the original four pound 1349 page hardback version. The novel is best compared to Tolstoy's War and Peace. Like Tolstoy, Vikram Seth has created an engaging human story and set it in the sweeping framework of a pivotal historic period. Like Tolstoy, Seth rapidly sets the story in motion and equally quickly creates a vivid cast of supporting characters, most from the three Hindu and one Muslim families whose fates form the nucleus of this novel. Unlike Tolstoy, Seth has written a novel that never flags. I have never successfully finished the final third of War and Peace in which Tolstoy lays out, at length, his theory of history. But Seth keeps us hoping that Lata will indeed find "a suitable boy" and gets us rooting for the different candidates who cross her path. And along the way, we absorb the smells, sounds and sights of the provincial city of Brahmpor in all of its beauty and squalor. Seth's Brahmpor has much in common with Dickens' London. Readers are sometimes overwhelmed by books like War and Peace with their numerous characters and unfamiliar names. That is a danger in this novel as well. But if you sit back and let the sights, sounds, unfamiliar words and unfamiliar names wash over you, you will gradually be absorbed into a different universe and emerge from the experience with a changed view of an important place in an important time. I, for one, hope that the roumors about an upcoming A Suitable Girl, are true.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2010

    A Great Epic Read

    Wow! If you can plow though all 1400 pages, reading this tome is worth it. The novel is about the lives four Indian families in the 1950 but is focused on a young college woman named Lata. Lata's family is searching for a "suitable" husband for her. It's through this search that we the reader get a good look at the culture, politics, and daily lives of the various people of India. On a deeper level, Vikram Seth is able to reveal the tension between traditional attitudes and the new social and political struggles that developed within Indian families during the transitional stages of the 1950 in colonial India. A great read! Highly recommended

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2009

    Pretty Good

    I read this book a couple of years ago. "Fat" books always catch my eye because I love them long! This was a pretty good book even though the majority of the book was not about finding a suitable boy. I'm glad I read it but was also happy when I finished it.

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  • Posted August 15, 2009

    delicious!

    i really enjoyed this novel--the detail is amazing--sometimes almost too much to take in at once. decadent to say the least! it would be a shame to see this a movie--they could never do it justice although i would so love to see some of the foods, trees, flowers and places (even though some are fictional) that Seth writes about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2008

    Best Book EVER!!!

    Vikram Seth uses beautiful real language that ties you into the emotions of these characters. I am hooked on them and I have about 25 pages to go and I dont want to let go. The book is wonderful, how can anyone describe it - to dscribe it is to read it to you. So Read it for yoruself! Don't be alarmed by the size, when the book holds you, you don't want it to end anyway.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2007

    Unforgivable

    This book brought great disappointments. The main plot of the book is finding a suitable boy for lata. However 75% of the book discusses things that are irrelevent to the plot and at times extremely boring. Also, i was disappointed and confused by the sudden endingof the book. On the whole i would only recommend this book to people who desire to learn about India and its world in the 1950s for it includes a great deal about: the politics, music, cultural traditions, and religion of its time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2007

    What a Chore!

    I have to disagree with the other reviewers of this book. I was greatly disappointed. The author begins the book by introducing NUMEROUS characters as though the reader already knows everyone. Also, for someone who is unfamiliar with the language and/or culture, Mr. Seth liberally uses phrases and terms with no explanation to the non-native reader of what he is talking about. Politics and government are mentioned in places with no correlation to the characters or story. And then there is the mere volume of this book. I am no stranger to large novels, however, this one left me dreading my nightly ritual of reading before bed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2006

    1474 pages of rewards

    This book changed my life. It gave me a great perspective about a country that I knew next to nothing about. Throughout my education I've learned a lot about what it was like here in The US during the 50's, but never about other countries. It was so great because it not only provided a great love story, it wrapped you up in people's lives and made you relate to people that you would have felt like you had nothing in common with. And it also told the tale of an entire nation of people and their struggles. It's still one of the best books I've ever read. It stays in my heart and it's absolutely unforgettable, its an epic, it's timeless and every human should read it. I know it's long but it's incredibly rewarding and fufilling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2005

    Exquisitely, Brilliantly, Passionately Written

    This book came to me at a critical time in my life and it still sits with me in my heart three years later. If ever you want to lose yourself in a book that will teach you something and at the same time provoke outstanding emotions from within, 'A Suitable Boy' is the book to read. The way Vikram Seth invites you into the characters' lives is unbelievable and makes one feel honoured to have a front row seat. Page after page the thirst grows stronger. This is one of only a handful of books that I wish I was still lost in.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2003

    Suitable Indeed!

    Thia is an amazing book and closest portrayal of post independence India one can ever read. Each character is described so brilliantly that its hard to pick out one as the hero of the novel. Vikram Seth understands the Indian psychology to perfection and this is clearly visible in Lata's character. Lata although was in love with Kabir (a muslim) and was quite a rebel of the family, however when it came to decision making she did what most Indian girls do- married the one her mother chose. This clearly depicts the Indian-mindset which is way too attached to its roots (family) and is ready to compromise.

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