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When Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was published in 1993, it took the world by storm. It remains one of the longest novels ever to be published in a single volume (at nearly one and a half thousand pages) and it has a huge cast of characters, so can appear to many to be a daunting read. Vikram Seth has been compared with Tolstoy and to George Eliot, and his book has been listed as one of the ‘all-time great Asian novels’.
A Suitable Boy is a love story, concerning Lata Mehra’s search for a ‘suitable boy’ to marry. Her mother is desperate to snare a son-in-law, but Lata would rather focus on studying English Literature. She meets three possible suitors and at the end of the novel, she makes her choice. Many other marriages and love relationships are discussed within this rich novel – young Maan Kapoor falls for the courtesan singer Saeeda Bai, but he is loved by his friend Firoz, and there are the marriages of Lata’s brother and of her sister which provide her with important matrimonial examples.
The novel is also the story of India, a newly independent country struggling through a general election and political choices. Much of it is set near the Ganges which is more than a river – it is the Holy Mother of India. Seth gives his readers festivals and ceremonies, traditions and laws, cricket and clothing, food and funerals – the book is a panoramic sweep through a densely populated, colourful and intriguing land. It’s a novel on a truly grand scale.