This 1474 page whopper may not be the first book that springs to mind when you think 'light, holiday reading', but it certainly should not be crossed off your list. While it is long, it is not tiresome, amazingly. I read this in just over two weeks, (not continuously, though I wish I could have dropped everything to just read this).
Seth manages to incorporate numerous conflicts, and struggles of India, using a wide range of characters to depict these struggles 'first-hand', in a sense. Everything comes from a personal angle, using characters with whom you can relate easily. I am not incredibly interested in politics, and there are numerous pages dedicated to the workings, personal and political, of the Indian government, and while some of the lexicon was lost on me, I was able to follow it easily and it is not long until the political side of things becomes closely, and valuably, intertwined with the filial relationships within the book.
The conflict, already well known, between Hindus and Muslims, is wonderfully documented in the relationships and friendships within the novel, creating a new dimension for discussing the rift, and similarly unity, between the two religions and cultures.
The blurb describes it to be primarily the story of a girl, Lata, attempting to find a suitable boy. I agree, and simultaneously disagree. It is so much more than Lata's story, but at the same time, while reading about the other characters and their stories, I found myself wanting to know what was happening with Lata and her marriage problem. All the suitable men in the book appeal at one point or another, and I think Seth deliberately plays the ending against the hopes of the reader... because, well, that's life.
It is a book that depicts India in a glorious, tragic, and optimistic way but I can't prescribe it as THE book to read to discover India's post-colonial, newly-independent, post-partition self. Even the stories of the villages focuses mainly on the richer inhabitants, giving brief profiles of the poor, but never going into enough depth. It is a book that depicts an India I haven't read a lot about: the upper classes. I would suggest also reading Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance'; with a similar narrative technique and numerous characters, the lower classes are delved into a great deal more, and reading the two would be a 'quick guide to Independent India', in my opinion.
Vikram Seth is a poet, and this is clear throughout. The first half of the novel contains numerous snippets of poetry, and many of the characters are greatly interested in literature. Sometimes these rhyming couplets can get annoying... but eventually, they help bring amusement and light-heartedness to a novel that is not always so light-hearted.
The relationships within the novels are not perfect, but you can't help emotionally involving yourself to the point that you hope they all work out... you wish Lata could clone herself into three, (or more) so that she can marry all of the possible men she has lined up. Even the marriages that are built on rocky foundations, cracked with adultery, are precious and you hope that they work out too.
Furthermore, it gives a whole new definition to 'marriage' from the definition pop-songs and movies give to Western society. Romance is very different, and love comes in many forms. Sometimes the mind comes first and leads the heart, preventing the (sometimes irrational) heart from leading the mind.
Overall, this book was one that I did not want to end. I wanted it to continue forever and ever... Perhaps Vikram Seth did too, but by the time he got to 1400 pages he thought he better wrap it up for his publisher's sake. You cannot help but involve yourself in the book. As much as it seems that the first pages keep you firmly as an outsider looking in through a pane of glass, the pane of glass quickly evaporates and you become each and every character, and are rocked by every opinion. You view every story from the insider's angle, even when the insider was the outsider a few moments ago.