This book was such a treat, I am sorry to be finished with it. Yes, it’s longer than War and Peace, but that doesn’t mean it’s drawn-out or dull; it’s simply that the book presents a sprawling tapestry of life in India in the 1950’s, starring several families and with many intersecting plots and subplots. Individual chapters are actually quite short, and something new is always happening. (For that matter, the same can be said for War and Peace – these mammoth novels aren’t as scary as they seem.)
It’s a hard book to summarize, because there are so many threads. Part of it is about the love life of a college student, Lata, and her mother’s search for a suitable boy for her to marry. Part of it is about a playboy, Maan, and the various difficulties he gets himself into. There’s a political thread starring Maan’s father, a government minister, and there are domestic dramas in several families, and large-scale tragedies and Hindu-Muslim conflict, and, oh, academic infighting and shoemaking and childbirth and poetry readings and much more. Seth keeps it all interesting, though; I love reading an author who takes a lively interest in everything without getting too bogged down in pet hobbies, and seeing so much more of life than the typical novel allows was great fun.
There is, of course, a very large cast, but Seth keeps them all distinct and interesting; even when a thread disappears for hundreds of pages at a time, I had no trouble remembering anyone. In all the myriad settings, relationships and situations depicted, the characters are well-drawn and convincing, and that’s no mean feat. By and large this book is about upper-middle and upper-class characters, which keeps the book from being bleak as stories about India sometimes are (we do see some abuse of lower-caste characters here, but it isn’t A Fine Balance). And Seth creates a great sense of place and does an expert job of depicting Indian culture: this book is full of sights, sounds, foods, celebrations, religion, politics, and so on, all drawn in a way that an outside reader can understand, but without pausing the narrative to explain things to the reader. It’s not exoticized, I doubt it would seem simplified to those familiar with the culture, but the characters will seem familiar and relatable even to those who aren’t.
So why not 5 stars? Well, I’m a hard grader, and I wouldn’t say the book made a deep impression on me; while it was a pleasure to read, I rarely thought about it at other times. And the writing, while good, is not spectacular.
And now, because I read an almost-1500-page book, I feel entitled to some fannish commentary.
Favorite characters: Pran and Savita. What wonderful, strong and interesting people. Oddly, given that they marry at the beginning of the book, I’m not entirely sure I like them together, but I did enjoy their hospital notes.
Least favorite character: Maan. A selfish playboy whose moments of courage don’t compensate for the heedless damage he does to the lives of everyone around him.
Favorite minor character: Dr. Ila Chattopadhyay. “Forceful” is an understatement.
Favorite walk-ons: the fans of Amit. His readers come out with such hilariously bizarre non sequiturs that I have to think the author borrowed from his own experience. But though Amit is a writer and therefore in danger of becoming an author avatar, Seth doesn’t indulge him, and the character is as realistic as the others. Also, his major poem, “The Fever Bird,” is actually good, and how often can you say that about poetry included in a novel?
Ultimately, a highly enjoyable book that I would certainly recommend. I kind of miss reading it (that'll happen when something really good takes you a month and a half). The good news: in 2016 Seth is publishing a sequel, set in the present day. You don’t hear “good news” and “sequel” together from me often, but I’m excited about this one.