The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for coping with your family at Christmas


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Ailment: Coping with your family at Christmas

Cure: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Presents aren't the only thing you can expect to descend on you next week. Hosting several members of your extended family at once is almost always a recipe for conflict – age-old tensions are raked up, new quibbles discovered. However, it wouldn't be Christmas without family. This year, when the initial love-rush begins to fade and the sniffy comments over how to cook the sprouts – and live your life generally – begin to slip out, don't take the bait. Instead, hole up with the ultimate literary exploration of family power dynamics: Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Not only will this keep you out of argument's way, but it'll show you how to keep hold of who you are even in a family in which the battle lines are established.

It tells an age-old story. Mrs Rupa Mehra wants to choose the man that her youngest daughter Lata will marry, but Lata has other ideas. "I do know what is best," Mrs Mehra tells Lata and "I'm doing it all for you." We don't need to come from an Indian family to have heard these words before – try swapping husband for hairstyle, for instance. For nearly 1,500 pages Lata ricochets between Haresh, the "suitable boy" of her mother's choosing, "solid as a pair of Goodyear Welted shoes"; Kabir, the fellow amateur actor she falls in love with; and Amit, the dilettante poet pushed forward by his sisters.

Lata is surrounded by people seeking to sway her. But whose life is it, anyway? She knows that ultimately she must make the choice herself – and the length of the novel testifies to her struggle. In the end, the choice she makes shows that although we may fight with our families for the freedom to be ourselves, we are also part and parcel of them, steeped in their culture, traditions and values – hence the family Christmas. Battle it out with your family if you must, but know that ultimately you are battling it out with yourself.