Summary and book reviews of Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives

By Vikram Seth

Two Lives
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2005,
    512 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2006,
    544 pages.

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Book Summary

A heartrending new book -- the story of a marriage and the story of two lives -- from the author of the international bestselling novel A Suitable Boy

Shanti Behari Seth was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth year of the twentieth century; he died two years before its close. He was brought up in India in the apparently vigorous but dying Raj and was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin -- though he could not speak a word of German -- to study medicine and dentistry. It was here, before he migrated to Britain, that Shanti's path first crossed that of his future wife.

Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as "Henny" was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family -- cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny's first reaction was, "Don't take the black man!" But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Hitler's Germany for England just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti.

Vikram Seth has woven together their astonishing story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple's lives of their great-nephew from India -- the teenage student Vikram Seth. The result is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.

Two Lives is both a history of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage, and abiding yet complex love. Part biography, part memoir, part meditation on our times, this is the true tale of two remarkable lives -- a masterful telling from one of our greatest living writers.

1.1

When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England. He was Indian by origin, she German. They were both sixty. I hardly knew them at the time. It was August 1969 – the monsoon season in Calcutta. A few days before I left, Mama had taken me to a temple to be blessed, which was most unlike her. She and Papa came to see me off at Dumdum Airport. I arrived at Heathrow in the afternoon. My great-uncle and great-aunt were still away on their annual holiday in Switzerland and, as I recall, I was met at the terminal by someone in the firm for which my father worked. My first impression was of the width of the road that led (under grey skies) to London. I was housed for a night in a drab hotel somewhere near Green Park.

That evening Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny returned from Switzerland, and the following day I and my luggage arrived at their door.

I looked at the house that was to be my home for the next few years. There...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Spanning almost the entire breadth of the twentieth-century, the life, friendship and marriage of Shanti Seth and Helga "Henny" Caro bookend a particularly violent slice of European history included the Second World War, the Holocaust, the collapse of imperialism in Europe and Asia and the division of Germany and the Middle East. The unlikely coupling and five-decade-long love affair between this European-educated Indian dentist and German-bred Jewish woman form the centerpiece of acclaimed author Vikram Seth's dual-biography of his beloved Aunt and Uncle—and provides a stunning meditation on the resiliency of an entire generation that experienced firsthand the depths of human cruelty and horror.

Two Lives is...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The Washington Post

Admirers of Seth's prose, among whom I certainly count myself, will find much in here that meets their hopes and expectations.

The Economist

A subtle portrait of the complexities of a long companionship . . . A wonderful book.

Christian Science Monitor

Engaging new memoir... Even as you enjoy one [story], you discover another within.

New York Times Book Review - Pankaj Mishra

Sensitive and compassionate... Fulfills the obligation Primo Levi once defined for writers on the Holocaust: it is unadorned and clear.

Library Journal - Mark Alan Williams

His writing is engaging and his characters fully developed and quickly familiar. Highly recommended

Denver Post

Seth turns biography into powerful literature, distilling the universal human emotions of passion, grief and the will to survive.

Entertainment Weekly

Something extraordinary... A thoughtful, engrossing narrative... This remarkable book offers rich rewards.

Seattle Times

[A] beautiful, loving, clear-eyed book... Translucent, telling prose.

The New York Times - William Grimes

In Shanti, Mr. Seth has top-grade material. His great-uncle was a splendid raconteur with a wealth of opinions and a lively turn of phrase (on full display in his scolding of an R.A.F. officer on the topic of British colonialism) ... Mr. Seth draws a loving, vivid portrait of his great-uncle, and the reader, like Mr. Seth, is reluctant to let him go when he finally dies at the age of 89.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Seth's voice is a fluent, graceful and compassionate one, and the story he tells-in a sense, it's every family's story-should have irresistible appeal. Another triumph for one of the most versatile and engaging of all contemporary writers.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This lovely book, "memoir as well as biography," examines great and fearful events seen through extraordinary lives. In clear and elegant writing, Seth explores the macrocosm through the microcosm, resulting in a most unusual, worthwhile book.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

This beautiful book delivers a passionate answer to a more personal but timeless question of human relations: How do two people ever manage to end up together?

Author Blurb Simon Winchester
I cannot remember ever being quite so moved by a memoir... [Seth's] achievement has exceeded all possible expectations.

Reader Reviews
Cloggie Downunder

Well worth reading
Two Lives is a memoir written by international best-selling author, Vikram Seth. In this interesting and engaging book, Seth writes about his great uncle Shanti Behari Seth (Shanti Uncle), born in Biswan, and his German Jewish great aunt, Hennerle ...   Read More

Begum

Two lives, one writer
Vikram Seth is genius in writing and making us face the bitter facts of life as well as pleasant ones. As he writes the two lives of his uncle and aunt, he also makes us realize and feel the real important things of life: true friendship, love, ...   Read More

Kate

A well-researched memoir/biography
Though not exactly a page-turner for me, I became gradually absorbed by the book the more I read because of my appreciation of Vikram Seth's thorough research into the background and lives of his aunt and uncle. He spares no details and the richness...   Read More

Junaid Mir

Vikram Seth's Style
Austere, that is the word that I feel aptly describes Seth's style. All the quality authors I have read nobody comes anywhere near to him in the simplicity levels of his writing. Anybody who relates reading to an experience of sipping a glass of ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Vikram Seth was born in India and educated there and in England, California, and China. He has written acclaimed books in several genres: verse novel, The Golden Gate; travel book, From Heaven Lake; animal fables, Beastly Tales; epic novel, A Suitable Boy, and a couple of books for children.

Partial bibliography:

Novels
The Golden Gate (1986)
A Suitable Boy (1993)
An Equal Music (1999)

Poetry
Mappings (1981)
Humble Administrator's Garden (1985)
All You Who Sleep Tonight  (1990)
Beastly Tales  (1991)
Three Chinese Poets (1992)

Non-Fiction
From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang And Tibet (1983)
Two Lives (2005)

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