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A book review by Steven Wu
July 09, 2002
|Rating: 5 (of 10)|
A Suitable Boy is the story of several Indian families whose paths intersect continually over a period of about a year. India has only recently gained its independence from the British, and in his lenthy tome Seth takes us through all the ramifications of that momentous change, from the modern city to the backwards country, and from the political to the intensely personal. But, as the title suggests, A Suitable Boy never strays far from the subject of love and marriage--indeed, the book both begins and ends with weddings.
A Suitable Boy is a superbly well-written book. Although I thought at first that Seth's tone was far too flippant, I soon came to appreciate the simple, unpresuming, but eminently readable style that Seth adopts from the first page to the last. It's really remarkable that in over 1,300 pages of densely spaced text, Seth at no point wrote a single sentence that I found awkward, melodramatic, or out of place. Nor does Seth sacrifice content to maintain such a high quality of writing--the book includes everything from straight-up action to long brooding descriptions, from fast-paced dialogue to moody soliloquies, from lovely portrayals of India and its landmarks to involving emotional moments.
Seth also does an admirable job handling the enormous cast of characters. Even the most minor characters are easily distinguishable from each other, and by the end of the book it is hard to avoid the feeling that you know these characters intimately (in some cases, quite literally so). Even more impressively, Seth deals deftly with the dizzying complexity of India's historical background. When I began the book I knew next to nothing about India except for the meager amount that was taught in America's public school system, but I very seldom felt that Seth had left me in the dark, even though a significant proportion of the book deals with the minutiae of Indian politics. Seth was able to express the urgency of Indian politics to me even when I knew very little about what was going on.
Unfortunately, for all its merits, A Suitable Boy is also 1,347 pages of tiny, closely spaced text--perhaps 800 more pages than was really necessary. Too much of the book is filled with tedious (if well written) details that don't contribute much to the story, nor to the background, and could easily have been cut. For instance, a significant proportion of one chapter is filled with a dense legal argument--as spoken by an attorney, not as summarized by an author!--that merely filled the pages without increasing the tension nor advancing the plotline. Furthermore, for all the verbiage in the book, very little actually develops. You'd expect a book of this length to have an epic feel to it, but A Suitable Boy has none of that: characters don't change very much, politics doesn't change very much (with few exceptions), and, indeed, nothing really happens that would require more than 500 pages to describe. Only in the last 100 pages or so does the plot really pick up; and even then Seth seems to give up by the end, and what at first seemed to be a rousing conclusion petered out instead. Finally, the length of the book is even more frustrating because Seth drops in so many "smoking guns" that turn out to be completely unimportant but that still take up dozens of pages. (**SPOILER WARNING: The worst of these, I thought, was the story of Meenakshi's recurrent infidelity, out of which nothing whatsoever resulted. **SPOILERS END)
Basically, A Suitable Boy is a deftly written and extremely slow book that would have been wonderful--if it weren't so damnably long.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews