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Review: The Toss of a Lemon, by Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon opens up in India at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Sivakami, the youngest daughter of a Brahmin family, is ten. Married to Hanumarathnam, a healer, she learns that, upon the birth of a son, he will die two years after. Sivakami has two children: Thangam, the beloved “golden child,” whose life follows a more traditional path, and Vairum, who embraces the traditions of the west as he grows older. As the twentieth century progresses, the two children have families of their own, and Sivakami becomes a respected matriarch in their village. Attached to this family is their servant, Muchami, who comes to them at age 13 and becomes almost a part of the family—even though he is from a different caste. This book is very much about the power that family plays in each character’s life.

The underlying theme of this book, however, is fate, and the title reflects this: lemons are seen as an innocuous instrument of a person's fate (I'm paraphrasing the author here). So many of these characters live their lives according to what is preordained for them in their horoscopes--which aren't always accurate, as it turns out. Each of these characters’ fates is unique, and these are people you come to care about as they grow and develop.

It’s a long novel; at over 600 pages, this book took me a while to read. But that’s not to say that this novel is cumbersome; rather, the opposite. A family saga needs to be this long at least, in order to tell the story properly. And in the end, the effort is worthwhile. The India that Viswanathan describes here is not the India that we’re used to reading about; even the British, whose presence in India was so pervasive, are nearly absent here. Like the little bits of gold that Thangam leaves in her wake, this book is truly magical. Viswanathan is an excellent writer.

Note: I'm having "reader's block" right now, so over the next number of days I'll be going back into my archives to dig up reviews of favorites/ not-favorites. It'll be interesting to see how my reviewing style has grown over the past four years or so!

Also reviewed by: Literary License, Ramya's Bookshelf, Bookopolis


diana raabe said…
Aha! I'm not the only one who gets "readers' block" which is an interesting way to put it.

Thanks for a fine review of the Viswanathan book. I really enjoy reading Rohinton Minstry and other Indian writers, so I'd probably get into this one.
LisaMM said…
I like Indian writers, too. Jhumpa Lahiri and Rohinton Minstry are favorites.

I looked around your site to try and find your email address, but can't.. could you please email me at LisamunleyATcaDOTrrDOTcom ? I need to ask you a question privately!!
Danielle said…
I didn't realize this was such a long book! I've requested it at the library. It sounds really good, though, so I hope I can manage it on the short check out time they give us!
Matt said…
Despite my frustration with God of Small Things, which I'll try to re-read, I enjoy reading Indian writers. I found their writing excellent and characters etched. I'll have to look for this novel--I like chunkster. :)

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