Picks and Pans Review: A Suitable Boy

updated 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Vikram Seth

I hate long books," says a minor character in Seth's new 1,350-page novel. "If they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals and making enemies out of friends." Readers, prepare to become social morons: This epic tale of four families' domestic and political lives in post-partition India is as absorbing as it is lengthy.

The main story concerns Lata Mehra, 19, an educated Hindu whose mother is trying to find her a suitable boy to wed. But Lata falls wildly in love with Kabir Durrani—a handsome Muslim. Soon Lata finds herself forced to choose between what she truly feels and what she has been told is right.

Lata's dilemma between the modern and the traditional makes entertaining reading; it also works as a metaphor for India at a political and social crossroad. An adept writer, Seth brings off both the personal and political, emerging with a vivid tapestry of Indian life in the early 1950s. He adds texture by leaving Indian phrases untranslated and Indian customs unexplained. (Meaning can almost always be gleaned from context.) While those unfamiliar with Indian history may be more interested in the subplots about crimes of passion than those about land reform, all will find Seth's sweeping soap opera seductive. His characters are captivating, from strong-willed Lata to her love-struck brother-in-law, Maan, to her sensible shoemaker suitor, Haresh. Long after you plow through this massive novel, they linger in the mind like old friends. (HarperCollins, $30)

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