Details: (c) Vikram Seth 1993; Pub 1994 Phoenix; ISBN 1-85799-088-9
Verdict: A suitable boy is a rewarding read.
Reasons for reading it: I'd been meaning to read A suitable boy for ages, because I had lots of recommendations including my mother raving about it. What finally gave me the push to read it was that zdamiana convinced darcydodo to read it and she was reading it when I saw her in Oxford. So it's mainly Zoe's fault, but there are other factors too!
How it came into my hands: One of the lovely second-hand book shops in Dundee.
I really enjoyed A suitable boy, and didn't at all resent spending nearly two months reading it. It reminded me of a comment that rysmiel made about very long books falling into a separate genre from normal-length novels just as novels are different from novellas; reading aSB feels like escapism rather than reading. Not in the sense that everything is lovely and fluffy; quite the contrary, some of aSB is fairly grim and I would classify it as primarily realist. But I felt as if I'd just been dropped into these people's lives; the plot is very buried under the detail, just as in reality people's lives don't have a plot.
Of course, a great deal of art is supposed to appear artless, and I have no doubt that aSB is actually extremely cleverly crafted. But it gives the impression that pretty much everything that happens to an extended family over the course of a year is included, nothing is too trivial to be worth writing about, though plenty of important things also happen. In a way aSB is a little bit like a soap opera, though that term has more negative connotation than I really intend; perhaps I should say, like an extrodinarily good soap opera!
And the characterization is absolutely marvellous. I really cared about these people's lives; apart from the interactive element, I could have got almost as addicted to aSB as I am to LJ! There are a few minor characters who are a bit caricutared for comic relief, but the great majority of the characters are real people. And the multiple viewpoints are handled very successfully; this is a technique I only like if it's done extremely well, but aSB is one case where it does work.
The narrative style assumes that the reader knows absolutely nothing about Independence-era India, so pretty much everything is explained in great detail. There's a lot of the reason she did this is because it was a custom among Hindus of her region and so forth. Since this assumption is correct in my case I didn't have a problem with it, and in fact I learnt a lot. In some ways aSB gave me a sense of updating the view I got of India from overdosing on Kipling as a kid; these people seem to be very much the descendents of Kipling's characters! Actually, the narration comes across with rather a charming personality even though it is theoretically impersonal third person omniscient.
I was very pleased that the setup does not automatically prioritize Romantic Love over all other possible kinds of human interaction. Fitting in with this, the ending was not predictable, and I think fit the book better than the more 'obvious' outcome would have done. And the sex, though mostly alluded to rather than described, is very sweetly tender.
The main downside of aSB for me was that I really didn't like Maan as much as the narrative expects me to. He's the viewpoint character for a significant chunk of the book, and he's clearly supposed to be charming but I found him somewhere between irritating and despicable. I also found it hard to consider it mere youthful over-zealousness when he near-fatally stabs his best friend because he believes, wrongly, that he's seeing the same courtesan that Maan is keen on. That incident destroyed any residual sympathy I might have had for Maan, and the remainder of the book after it happens seems to be predicated on the assumption that the reader will feel terribly sorry for him getting into such an unfortuate situation.
I was also rather disappointed with the Rasheed arc. There doesn't seem to be any convincing explanation for his madness, and even taking into account that he is mad, his behaviour makes no sense. Also, it really irritates me when novels use suicide as a convenient way to tie up a lose thread.
But overall, I enjoyed aSB a great deal, though I can see it would only appeal to some tastes and not all.