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A Suitable Boy (thoughts)

October 13, 2009

asuitableboyYou know, whenever I read a book that’s over 1,000 pages, I find myself at a loss to review it. I ended up not doing full reviews of War and Peace or Les Miserables last year, and now I find myself behind in reviewing both A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.

That being said, I’m going to try to review A Suitable Boy today! The book is over 1,400 pages long, and I absolutely loved it until the last hundred pages (I didn’t like the ending of one of my fave characters, although the more I think about it the more I accept it-it didn’t ruin the book for me or antyhing though!). It’s a modern novel, so it doesn’t include the philosophical asides of War and Peace or Les Mis, but it did remind me of them both in that there was a huge canvas with all sorts of characters and plots. The book teemed with life! There are Muslim families and Hindu families, there are courtesans and young star-crossed lovers and grieving widows and newlyweds. There are births and deaths, triumphs and failures, good deeds and evils ones, political campaigns and mass riots. In other words, there’s a little something of everything and it would be impossible for me to tell you more than that!

Seth has a marvelous writing style. It’s very immediate and direct, with a sort of wry humour. He’s also rather adept at couplets; the table of contents is written in couplets, and one of the main families in the book speak to each other in random rhymes. Speaking of that family, they reminded me a bit of J.D. Salinger’s the Glass family, only without all the tragedy. The children were in their twenties, and they were all rich and rather spoiled, very intelligent and witty, but casting around for a real purpose to their lives. They made me smile quite a bit! I said earlier that the book covers pretty much everything in life, and it does, but several of the central characters are in their late teens and twenties, so there’s quite a bit of coming-of-age plots going on. As a twenty-three-year-old myself, I identified with these characters (even though most were wildly different from me!), and it was nice to see them struggling for a ‘life purpose’ since it made me feel less alone. ;) That being said, there are so many other stories going on, I don’t want to imply that even the majority of the book deals with those issues-they’re simply the ones that I gravitated towards.

All of the book’s characters felt like real people; Seth made me feel their worries as my own, and never did a character feel stereotypical or as if he was a filler. I could expect to meet even the minor characters at a cocktail party! And while some characters were struggling financially while others were among the economic elite, I would say the book dealt mostly with families who were comfortably off, and there were only a couple visits to ‘slums’, which as readers we saw through the eyes of middle-class characters. I actually really liked this; it seems to me that with movies like Slumdog Millionaire, there’s an impression among some Westerners that all Indians are poor, or that their concerns are light years away from our own. While A Suitable Boy is definitely Indian, it also is universal. At no point did I think of the characters as ‘Them’ or ‘Other’; Seth really brought 1950s India to me, and I’m grateful for that experience.

It’s ironic that this is one of my shorter reviews, since it’s of one the longest books I’m likely to read this year! But I promise that this is everything a chunkster should be, and anyone who enjoys ‘everyday’ stories (i.e.: this isn’t a thriller-type book like Count of Monte Cristo, although there is an attempted murder or two!) will love this one as well. Part of why I love reading international fiction is that I feel like I get to be ‘native’ for a little bit, and A Suitable Boy is the best book I’ve read for that experience. There aren’t any pyrotechnics in the book, no crazy po-mo metaplots or anything. This is just straight-up storytelling at its finest, and I highly recommend it. Like the wonderful chunksters last year, it’s one I intend to reread!

Can you suggest any books that are 1,000 pages or more? Last year, I read War and Peace and Les Mis, this year I read Count of Monte Cristo, A Suitable Boy, and Kristin Lavransdater…so I need some ideas for next year!

43 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2009 7:39 pm

    I have been so looking forward to what you thought of “A Suitable Boy” because it’s one of my favorite books (if you didn’t know that already)! I re-read it recently earlier this year. I agree that I wish the last part could have ended differently for some of the characters, but like you said, it didn’t make me end up hating the book. Do you know that Seth is planning a sequel, “A Suitable Girl”, coming out in a couple years? I’m looking forward to it.

    Glad that you liked this book :-)!

  2. October 13, 2009 7:43 pm

    Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa!

  3. October 13, 2009 7:56 pm

    I tried reading this back in May, and I really struggled with it, unfortunately. I don’t know if I was just not in the right mental space, but I kept finding that I cared about certain characters and storylines more than others (I was most interested in Lata) and so when I had to read some of the other stories, I became bored. I think I made it about 350 – 400 pages in before I put it down and did not pick it up again, because at that point there was just too much going on about politics and uprisings and the like that just did not interest me at all. Perhaps part of the problem is that I generally do not read extremely long books (generally nothing longer than 400 pages), so I might just not have the stamina for those kinds of reads at the moment. Maybe I can gradually work my way up (I petered out reading The Count of Monte Cristo as well…)?

  4. October 13, 2009 8:10 pm

    1400 pages?!? Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that long. It sure does sound good, though.

  5. October 13, 2009 8:13 pm

    I’m adding this to my TBR list. Great review–you really caught my interest.

  6. October 13, 2009 8:13 pm

    I always worry about books this long, because my main experience with them is that they need a good editing. That’s not to say NO book can be that long and good, but I think all of the books I’ve read that long are old classics and they all needed some good editing.

    Having said that, I really enjoyed An American Tragedy, which is 1000+. It definitely could have used some editing, but I didn’t mind that so much in there. I’m not sure if you’d like that book, from knowing your tastes, but it’s the only 1000+ book I can think of offhand that you haven’t already read, and I personally really enjoyed it both times I’ve read it.

  7. October 13, 2009 8:14 pm

    (by Theodore Dreiser. You probably already know that, but I feel foolish for not putting it in the comment. Just in case.)

  8. October 13, 2009 8:52 pm

    You know Seth wrote an entire novel in couplets called Golden Gate. It’s about life in modern San Francisco. I liked it.

    But I’ve not read A Suitable Boy as of yet. I did read Les Miz. this year and loved it. I did a review of each part, five reviews instead of one. That helped. There’s no way I could have don just the one review.

    The long stuff I like is all classic. I love The Eustace Diamond’s by Anthony Trollope which is quite long, and Charles Dickens as well. He has several very long books, if you just read one David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, oh just pick any one of his that you think you might like. They are all full of fun stuff.

    The only really long contemporary stuff I see now-a-days is all science fiction/fantasy. I’ve always felt they could really use and editor as Amanda says.

  9. October 13, 2009 9:00 pm

    1400 pages is quite an accomplishment!

  10. October 13, 2009 9:08 pm

    Hrm… well, I really enjoyed Capital, which is very long. I’m in the middle of Finnegan’s WAke which is… a fascinating reading experience, though it is impossible to define it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s not 1000 pages, but it FEELS like 10000 pages ;P. But neither of those books is as good as Les Mis…

    I’m reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene in January, if you want to read along – I can’t imagine I’ll find anyone to read it with me, though :/. Then, I can’t imagine you HAVEN’T read it, but the Lord of the Rings is practically one book, and over 1000 as such. What I’d REALLY like to find though is something that long written by a female author, or at least an authentic female narrator or protag (so I’m looking forward to Kristin Lavransdatter). Classically, there just weren’t as many women writing epic sweeping books :(. Middlemarch, have you read that? It’s not QUITE 1000…

  11. October 13, 2009 9:09 pm

    This sounds so good but the thought of 1400 pages scares me!

  12. October 13, 2009 9:19 pm

    How long did it take you to read?

  13. October 13, 2009 9:32 pm

    Eva, I’m so glad you loved it! A Suitable Boy is one of my most favourite books of all time! Despite the heft, I really didn’t feel it was that long, because it was so unbelievably good. I never felt bored for a minute. Also, I didn’t like the ending very much as well, but it wasn’t a literary dislike. More a personal dislike. Literarily, it just made it more realistic and unpredictable. Personally, I would have chosen “the other” possibility. :)

  14. October 13, 2009 9:53 pm

    Infinite Jest and Lonesome Dove both break the 1000-page mark by about 9 pages each, and both = awesome.

  15. October 14, 2009 12:01 am

    A person doesn’t have to be in his or her twenties to be seeking a “life purpose” *sigh* You have put this 1400-pager on my list! A thousand pages….will have to think about this; you’ve gotten many great suggestions already. If you don’t mind multiple volumes, there’s Proust (but you’ve probably read him)…

  16. October 14, 2009 12:02 am

    It’s been so many years since I read this book but you’ve put me in the mood for a re-read. Maybe I will have time early next year. :) Glad you enjoyed it!

  17. October 14, 2009 1:24 am

    Oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I definitely need to move it up my list. I love huge chunksters like this and I really should read more of them. I was just looking through my library for recommendations, though, and realized most of the huge books I have are fantasy novels. Have you read Don Quixote, which in my edition is nearly 1000 pages? It’s best appreciated if you’ve read a few chivalric romances to realize what he’s satirizing, but I’d read it before and quite enjoyed it anyway.

  18. October 14, 2009 1:58 am

    I haven’t read any of these yet, but they’re on my tbr list:

    Centennial by James Michener
    Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    And ladies of the club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

  19. October 14, 2009 2:50 am

    Oh gosh I had this on my shelf for years before finally giving it away as I couldn’t hack the thought of reading it. I’d like to give it a go some day.

    1000+ pages? I normally steer clear of those…

    Gone with the Wind was superb, and I can highly recommend both The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.

    I’ve heard Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is incredibly good but seeing as it’s about seven or eight volumes long I have always avoided it like the plague. Perhaps I should get around to it.

  20. October 14, 2009 2:59 am

    I am planning on reading this one as my last chunkster book for the challenge so I have avoided reading your review in depth Eva but I got the gist that you enjoyed it so that is great! I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it now.

  21. October 14, 2009 3:08 am

    Valerie, I did know it was one of your favourites! :) I didn’t know about the sequel, though-that is quite exciting!!!

    Dorothy, that one scares me! lol I’ve read that the writing is *really* dense. But then, Les Mis used to scare me too.

    Steph, I already e-mailed you, but I think ‘building up your stamina’ makes perfect sense-in my mind, I don’t even consider a novel especially long until it’s hitting the 800 page mark, and it’s not challengingly long until 1,000+, so it’s probably in the way we look at things!

    BermudaOnion, it didn’t feel like a crazy-long book though!

    Jenclair, thank you! I keep tring to visit your blog, but my browser crashes every time. :/ I can read your posts via GR but can’t comment…it’s great to have you back though!

    Amanda, some of the classic authors were paid by the word, so that might be your issue with it! This one is modern, so it doesn’t have that padded feel to it. ;) Thanks for a rec! I’ve vaguely heard of An American Tragedy, but I don’t know much about it, so off to read!

    CB, I didn’t know that-it sounds like fun though! When I read Les Mis, I reviewed the earlier parts like you did on a grou preadalong blog, but then I got lazy, lol. I loved The Eustace Diamonds too (and I don’t even remember it has long, even though I just looked it up & the Penguin edition is 800 pages!). I’ve not been Dickens’ largest fan in the past, but I’m thinking I should give him another try!

    Kathleen, thanks!

    Jason, you know how I feel about Joyce. :p Last year some bloggers read Faerie Queen together, so you might be able to rustle up a companion! I’ve read LOTR a couple times-I’ve been contemplating a reread though! I get it w/ long female authors (and I think you’re in for a treat w/ KL-it’s very womanly), and I loved Middlemarch!!!

    Lisa, the thing I love about really long novels is that you can get super-attached to the characters and the atmosphere of the book, because you know it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. :)

    JT, I read this one pretty leisurely-over a couple of weeks I think. Maybe closer to 20 days…I’m not really sure.

    Claire, I completely agree with what you’ve said! :)

    Raych, I got through 5 pages of Lonesome Dove a couple years ago and gave up. But I’m going to give Westerns another shot and try The Texicans…if I enjoy it, maybe I’ll try out Lonesome Dove again! I forgot about Infinite Jest-thanks for the rec!

    DS, you’re supposed to tell me things get better as I age! :p I take it as quite the compliment you think I’ve already read Proust…he actually makes me quite nervous.

    Kristen, awesome!

    Meghan, I’m not opposed to fantasy novels. :) I haven’t read DQ, but I got my mom the new translation as a birthday gift a few years back, and she really enjoyed it!

    3M, thanks for the recs! GWTW was one of my fave books in middle school-now I’m worried about rereading it w/ all of the racism that I’m much more sensitive to. I haven’t heard of the other two!

    Rachel, I’ve read C&P (is that over 1,000?) a couple times, and I have Brothers Karamazov patiently waiting for me on the TBR case! I’m glad I’m not the only one made nervous by Proust. ;)

    Karen, you’re in for a treat! :)

  22. October 14, 2009 3:13 am

    You have pinpointed the exact problem I had with slumdog, it caters and attracts to what we call the Westerners perpective of what is India.

    You have made this chunkster sound so alluring and worth reading.

  23. October 14, 2009 3:24 am

    Not sure if Vanity Fair is 1000+ but it felt like it while I was holding it :)

  24. October 14, 2009 4:06 am

    I really want to read this, but am put off by the length. Hopefully I’ll get round to it one day. I own a copy, so have no excuse!

  25. October 14, 2009 5:12 am

    I loved A Suitable Boy, too! When I was in my early 30’s, I devoured the nearly 1200 page And Ladies of the Club, and routinely gave it to any pregnant friend sentenced to bedrest. Clarissa is now waiting on my shelf…

  26. October 14, 2009 5:40 am

    wow. I couldn’t even get through Pillars of the Earth. I think book-count-goals have ruined me.

  27. October 14, 2009 7:20 am

    This summer I went to London and it seemed as if everyone was reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s 900+ so not 1000 pages but almost! I haven’t read it but want to. Also…The Terror by Dan Simmons is also 900+ and I LOVED it. Apparently I can’t seem to break the 1000 mark with my reads :)

  28. October 14, 2009 8:34 am

    I read this book pre-blog, so I did not write a review of it. However, I loved it!! I was reading it as I was recovering from foot surgery and the characters made me feel less lonely. I agree with you that Seth brought an entire world to life which was pretty impressive. I have not read anything else by him, so I am not sure if his writing is consistently good.

    Other chunkster books I can think of are Book Thief and Poisonwood Bible, although I cannot remember how many pages either one is exactly.

  29. October 14, 2009 8:55 am

    A couple people here mention “….And Ladies of the Club” — I loved that book! I read it a loooong time ago, though — maybe a re-read should be in my future….sometime!

    I haven’t read all of Seth’s books yet, but each one I have read is very different! The only thing I’ve seen consistent with his books, is that his penchant for poetic writing often comes through (and he has done a couple books of poetry as well).

  30. October 14, 2009 8:57 am

    Oh it was so wonderful and I want to reread it, but when will there ever be the time? For a modern novel have you tried ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’? Not as long as the others but still a mighty chunkster.

  31. Marjorie permalink
    October 14, 2009 1:14 pm

    How about a couple of classics from Asia?

    “Chin P’ing Mei (Golden Lotus): The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and His Six Wives.” My copy clocks in at 863 pages. Written by a pseudonymous author sometime in the 17th century. It has never been established who the author really was. It’s considered one of the great classical novels of China, portraying the life of a corrupt merchant in the closing years of the Ming Dynasty. Lots of sex.

    “The Tale of Genji”. written in the 11th century by Shikubu Murasaki, a lady of the Heian court of medieval Japan, is also very long. My cooy, in the translation by Edward Seidensticker, is 1090 pages long. The novel recounts the amatory and other adventures of Genji, also known as “The Shining Prince”, the second son of a Japanese emperor. Lots of interesting secondary characters. The novel has a hypnotic effect, transporting you into a completely different world.

  32. October 14, 2009 2:09 pm

    After reading War and Peace for college, I don’t think I could tackle another book over 1000 pages. This would be way too much for me.

  33. October 14, 2009 7:53 pm

    I don’t have a comment or recommendation for 1400+ books but I did want to read the comments and see what everyone else recommends!

    I loved Les Mis and thought Count of Monte Cristo was okay (I know you didn’t like it!!) but i think those are the only ones I’ve read that long that I can think of off-hand. I have Michener’s The Source on my TBR shelf recently come from Bookmooch.

  34. October 14, 2009 11:04 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time. The size really did intimidate me. And that’s actually pretty weird for me too. Especially when you consider some of my all time favorites: Les Mis, Gone With the Wind, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Stand. 4 of my top 5 all-time favorites are over 1,000 pages!!

  35. October 15, 2009 5:30 am

    Violet, I think you’d really enjoy it. :) And I’d love to a review of it by an Indian!

    Jenn, lol! I read Vanity Fair a few years ago, and I really liked it!

    Jackie, it doesn’t take as long to read as you’d imagine a 1,400 book would!

    JoAnn, it seems like And Ladies of the Club meets with universal approval!

    Care, I read a bunch of really short books at the same time I was reading this one so that I still felt like I was accomplishing something. ;) This was a lot better than Pillars of the Earth!

    Amanda, I read Shantaram a few years ago-it’s really good! (Though there are some disturbing books) The Terror sounds awesome-I looked it up and it’s 992 pages. That’s EVIL! lol

    Beastmomma, I haven’t read anything else by Seth either! I loved The Book Thief. :) And did NOT love Poisonwood Bible.

    Valerie, ok-I definitely want to read that one next year with all of these enthusiastic comments! It doesn’t surprise me he’s issued some poetry books. :)

    Jodie, I read The Crimson Petal and the White a few years ago-I was impressed by how immerseive it was for historical fiction!

    Marjorie, thanks for the suggestions! I worry about writing style of older chunksters, but I’ll give them a try one of these days!

    Serena, it’s funny how some of us revel in long books and others loathe them. :)

    Rebecca, I haven’t heard of The Sourve before!

    Stephanie, LOL-you should definitely give this one a go then!

  36. October 15, 2009 6:57 am

    Depending on which edition you pick, “Don Quixote” runs around a 1, 000 pages or so (the Penguin is a bit over that).

    If non-fiction counts, you might look at “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia” by Rebecca West. It runs well over 1,100 pages and recounts her experiences traveling through Yugoslavia just prior to World War II; it’s a fascinating book.

  37. October 15, 2009 4:23 pm

    Eva, you are truly making me ache to read this book! I stumbled across it for 50 cents at Half Price Books a couple of months ago, and it’s been waiting patiently on my shelves ever since. Now I’m eyeing it greedily. I tend to shy away from chunksters, but I’m thinking of diving in! I have a four-day weekend stuck at home in bed, so why not, right?

  38. October 16, 2009 9:55 am

    Hedgie, that Balkans book sounds fascinating, especially since I did my college senior honour thesis on Bosnia.

    Andi, I think you should go for it! :D (And I’m jealous you got it for 50 cents! I miis Half Price!)

  39. October 16, 2009 7:53 pm

    I’ve not read this one; I never really know how I react to books about Indians in the diaspora. I generally compare the characters’ lives to mine, and don’t think the characters’ lives are realistically portrayed.

    As for really long books- it’s not over 1,000 pages (unless it’s in mass market, I guess), but I LOVE Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.

  40. Zoya permalink
    January 22, 2010 2:26 pm

    your review certainly makes it sound interesting and I think I can make a correlation since I’m from India. I would rather look for an ebook if its over 1000 pages though :)

  41. nisha solanki permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:11 am

    i loved A SUITABLE BOY to such an extent that i think i wold have been a different person hadn’t i read the book! despite the ending which does not see the union of the hero and and heroine, ending was more practical and not that heart wrenching. aaaaaaall the characters in the book are given due emphasis. aroma of the book lingers in heart forever after finishing the book. though i was apprehensive after seeing the size ,but i consider myself fortunate having read the book. A MUST READ FOR EVERY INDIAN!


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