Wednesday, March 18, 2015

From the archives: The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan, a saga of 20th-century India

With an assured voice and a deep understanding of her characters’ moral values, Viswanathan breathes life into the social changes that swept through early- to-mid-twentieth-century Tamil Nadu, India.

In 1896 10-year-old Sivakami becomes the child bride of a healer predicted to die young. Left a widow at 18, she dutifully obeys her Brahmin heritage’s millennia-old customs—strict rules dictating her appearance, food preparations, even whom she may speak with or touch.

Sivakami devotes her life to her family, but her decisions on daughter Thangam’s marriage and son Vairum’s secular education occasionally have heartbreaking results.  Janaki, Sivakami’s similarly conservative granddaughter, later grows to adulthood in an India that comes to view Brahmins not as a proud, mutually supportive people but as racially pure bigots—an opinion her uncle Vairum shares.

Despite the saga’s length, there are no dull moments or extraneous scenes. Most impressively, Viswanathan immerses readers in the realities of the caste system from both sides; in telling a universal story of generational differences on a personal level, she makes a vanished world feel completely authentic. Superbly done.

Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon was published in paperback by Mariner in 2009 (trade pb, 636pp).  It's out of print in hard copy but readily available used, at PaperbackSwap, and through your local library. You can also buy it as an ebook now ($9.99 on Kindle).  This review first appeared in Booklist in August 2008.

To mix things up while I put together another long gallery of titles, and figuring readers would be interested in hearing about excellent historical novels even if they aren't new releases, I decided I'd post from time to time about older titles that are worth seeking out.  This one definitely is, and it's also a perfect choice for Women's History Month.  The author, who is Canadian, based her saga on family stories told by her grandmother about her own grandmother's life.

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