BOOK REVIEW / Playing happy families in Brahmpur: Tim McGirk on the exhausting charms of Vikram Seth's frothy comedy manners, marriages and mynah birds: A suitable boy - Vikram Seth: Phoenix House, pounds 20

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ABOUT A third of my way through this huge novel, say on page 455, a sort of despair set in. I'd met four entire extended Indian familes and about 40 other characters, politicians, courtesans, cricketers, amateur poets - some of them funny and original - when it sunk in that none of this was going anywhere. The novel sprawls. It spreads. It foliates exuberantly. But it doesn't move. I found myself agreeing emphatically with Seth's opening quotation by Voltaire: 'The secret of being a bore is to say everything.'

But having soldiered on through all 1,366 pages, I realise that I was a bit hasty. It is worth finishing. At the heart of the novel is Mrs Rupa Mehra's search for 'a suitable boy' to wed her youngest daughter, Lata. She is a sensible and attractive student at Brahmpur University, where girl-talk for a delectable-looking guy is a 'Cad', as in Cadbury's chocolate. Her suitors include Kabir, a Muslim history student (the true Cad of the trio), but this possibility is fraught because Lata is a good Hindu and her mother does not want her to marry out. The next is Haresh, an energetic shoemaker, whose 'eyes disappear in his smile'. And the third is Amit, who, like author Seth, is a poet writing a long novel that, he confesses, is 'like the Ganges in its upper, middle, and lower courses - including its delta of course'.

On the strength of a swift, short and clever first novel in verse, The Golden Gate, Seth received nearly a million dollars in international advances for A Suitable Boy, and his publishers both in Britain and the United States, anxious, perhaps, to recoup their cash, have been trumpeting this as Great Literature and likening Seth to Tolstoy. It is a pity, for Seth is no Tolstoy nor, thankfully, does he pretend to be.

The novel is set in 1951, soon after India's independence. It begins with one marriage and ends with another, Lata's. Not content to invent an imaginary village or town, Seth creates a whole state, Purva Pradesh, somewhere along the Ganges river. The novel drifts back to a more innocent age, when politicians were freedom fighters with ideals and not today's bloated officials. It is a quieter, more langorous time, when mynah birds inhabited every garden, all the traffic wardens recognised the Buick driven by Lata's cranky grandfather, and people were inclined to attend gatherings of the Brahmpur Literary Society.

There is no post-colonial angst; most of the characters are upper-middle class Indians who have absorbed British dominion and departure with equal ease. Seth is good at capturing that Indian feeling that even in a country of 870 million, everyone, or at least all the people who count, know each other intimately. He recounts the saga of four families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. All are strikingly different, and Seth weaves them together with the good sense not to proclaim that he has captured all of vast India in his web.

The Mehras are related to the Chatterjis through the marriage of Lata's older brother, an anglicised snob named Arun, to Meenakshi, a glitteringly shallow socialite whose routine revolves around the club, afternoon canasta with the Shady Ladies club, and adultery. Of these activities, she probably enjoys canasta the most. The Chatterjis are a family of delightfully dotty Bengali intellectuals who joust with teasing couplets over breakfast, and here Seth, the poet, is on home ground.

Even in Brahmpur, the fictitious capital of Purva Pradesh, Seth is convincing in his portrayals of politicians, nawabs, classical singers and peasants. Lata's sister marries the son of a Congress state minister, Mahesh Kapoor, a follower of Nehru's. The prime minister makes two special guest appearances, immaculate with a rose in his button hole: once slapping his gardener, and the other time campaigning for Kapoor. Kapoor has a vulnerability for Urdu ghazal music, and invites Brahmpur's courtesan, Saeeda Bai, to sing in his house. There, Kapoor's son, Maan, a complex and thoroughly likeable rascal, falls for the singer. Maan's tortured trysts with the courtesan, I thought, are far more fascinating than Lata's dithering over her beaux.

An honest politician, Kapoor is trying to pass a law confiscating lands from the feudal lords, even though his best friend, the Nawab, will be disastrously reduced by this. Yet the old Nawab sits in his dusty family library, more concerned about Allah and the silverfish devouring his rare volumes of Urdu poetry than he is about the impending loss of his princely status and property.

The tone of the novel is determinedly frothy and light, all the better to last the long passage through love affairs, a Ganges pilgrimage, cricket matches, a wolf hunt, crimes of passion, a few riots, and a bruising political campaign. Seth's dialogue is fluid and fine; his descriptive passages less so. They simply speed by, too shallow for lasting resonance. Occasionally, I had to restrain my hand from impulsively flipping through tedious parliamentary debates on land reform and the appalling poetry of the Brahmpur Literary Society. He delights, rather perversely, in showing that he can write doggerel.

Seth is a master of brilliant beginnings. Every chapter has new characters, a new refraction. Lovesick musicians, mathematical child prodigies, blood-eyed Rajas and even a village idiot parade through. But once Seth has managed to get under their skins, he tires. He flits off and doesn't deepen our understanding or even our interest in them. This happens not only with the teeming crowd of walk-ons, but also with the people who matter. I closed the book thinking that I still didn't know enough about Lata, Maan, the Nawab, Saeeda Bai, and Lata's bossy mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra. Seth is a marvel at invention, but he never penetrates deeply enough. For readers unfamiliar with India, this mesmeric dazzle may be enough, but so many Indian friends of mine had the same reaction: Yes, they say, we know there are arranged marriages, corrupt politicians and pushy shoe salesmen. But so what?

Lata does find her suitable boy, but even after digging through a thousand pages of dialogue and detail, I can't say Seth tells me enough about Lata and her mother to make me care. All we really know about Mrs Rupa Mehra is that she's a widow, she soaks her handkerchiefs in eau-de-cologne, she threatens to give her sons and daughters 'two tight slaps' when she's angry, and that sugar makes her blood pressure rise. It's all a bit cloying and empty, like the syrupy Bengali sweets that Mrs Mehra cannot resist.

Even Lata's quest, and the tug between love and traditional Hindu views of marriage, is at times a distraction from more compelling episodes which Seth cannot be bothered to wind up with any aplomb or conviction. However much Seth's poet character, Amit, may talk of writing a novel like the Ganges itself, A Suitable Boy doesn't truly run its course. It exhausts itself.