The Toss of a Lemon: Book summary and reviews of The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon

By Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2008,
    640 pages.

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Book Summary

In a fiction debut to rival The God of Small Things, Padma Viswanathan gives us a richly detailed and intimate vision of an India we’ve never seen.

Inspired by her family history, Padma Viswanathan brings us deep inside the private lives of a Brahmin family as the subcontinent moves through sixty years of intense social and political change. At the novel’s heart is Sivakami, a captivating girl-child married at ten to an astrologer and village healer who is drawn to her despite his horoscope, which foretells an early death – depending on how the stars align when their children are born. All is safe with their daughter’s birth, but their second child, a son named Vairum, fulfills the prophecy: by eighteen, the child bride Sivakami is a widow with two young children.

According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she must don the widow’s white sari. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. She dutifully follows custom, except for one act of rebellion: she insists on a secular education for her troubled son. While her choice ensures that Vairum fulfills his promise in a modernizing India, it also sets Sivakami on a collision course with him. Vairum, fatherless in childhood, childless as an adult, rejects the caste identity that is his mother’s mainstay, twisting their fates in fascinating and unbearable ways.

The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic and yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family’s doorstep. It is also the debut of a major new voice in world fiction.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and world views to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners." - Publishers Weekly.

"Starred Review. Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of Garcia Marquez - altogether a pleasure." - Kirkus Reviews.

"Starred Review. Gender rules, class relations, and the political castes of late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century India are well presented, making this an important work of historical fiction. Highly recommended for all collections." - Library Journal.

"The Toss of a Lemon is a captivating novel that in relating the story of one Indian woman and her family tells the story of a changing society. Precisely and deftly written, constantly interesting, morally serious yet sympathetic -- I challenge any reader to start reading this book and give up on it. It joins the company of the great novels on India." - Yann Martel.

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Iliana
The Toss of a Lemon
Author Padma Viswanathan sets out to tell an epic story of a woman and her family living in India from 1896-1962. Sivakami is a Brahamin woman who is married off at 10 but by the time she is 18 she's already a widow.

She has two children but her life is dictated by what is expected of widowed women, basically that they shut themselves off from society because after all something must be wrong for them to be widow. It is as if they were a bad omen.

Interesting tidbits of what is expected of widowed women are shared in this narrative. That in my opinion is the strength of the novel but even though this is supposed to be the story of Sivakami, I felt that I still didn't know her well enough at the end of the book. I wanted to know what she thought of all the rules placed before her.

Normally I don't judge a book by its size but in this case I do think the novel went on for too long.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Donna Lynn Edwards
Impressive Inspirational Journey
Padma Viswanathan has written an impressive inspirational journey of a fictional Brahmin family that spans three generations. Be prepared however, for diminutive details that encompass 616 pages, as the author describes life in India from 1896 to1962.

The Toss of a Lemon is based on the stories told to her by her grandmother and re-created in the character of Sivakami. This woman is widowed at eighteen with two small children, thereafter, she is subjected to the strict rules governed by her caste. Unable to leave the house, unable to be touched from dawn to dusk, unable to remarry I can’t imagine how she feels at her age. Further, she must wear white and have her head shaved by an untouchable.

What a powerful woman she is. I love Sivakami because she is such a paradox as supplicant to her caste, yet defiantly disregarding caste rules in to raise her grandchildren. In a patriarchal society this takes strength, endurance and courage. She is a remarkable character. Padma’s grandmother must be pleased and proud that her stories have new life. If you enjoy a book with a strong heroine or love historical epics this would appeal to you.

I felt the subject of the caste system was a missed opportunity for more in depth teaching. There is an assumption at times that the reader has an above average understanding of Indian social and cultural life. This would be an ideal reading group novel with a study guide. Brilliantly written by a debut novelist with tremendous talent.

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Barbara Hay
The Toss of a Lemon
I found this book very tedious reading ... I had to push myself to finish. Great story and family but it took the author too long to tell it.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Liz
The Toss of a Lemon
It was with great reluctance that I turned the last pages of The Toss of a Lemon. This rich and deftly written novel captures the lives of members of a conservative Brahmin family living in a small village in southern India. I was completely captivated with the world Viswanathan created in this novel. I’m partial to novels about India, and The Toss of a Lemon far exceeded my expectations. Readers of Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Manil Suri will enjoy this novel.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Katharine
Toss of a Lemon
On the back cover of my advanced copy, Yann Martel (Life of Pi author) challenges the reader to "start reading this book and give up on it". Well, I did, and I am...for now. This is the story of Sivakami, a woman (1896-1962) who, because of her Brahmin class, was forced to live a secluded life .. widowed at 18 with two children, she is so bound up in tradition and ritual that I finally had to break out of her daily life and come up for air. Extraordinarily well written, the book is redolent with the wonderful smells and tastes that Indian novels tend to portray, and the details of the daily events of village life are interesting, and I really want to know more about the siddhas, who are naked, ash covered, skinny, itinerant ascetics. For now, though, I have to leave this 600-page still life of ash, and gold, and lemons.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Patricia
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
I am a big fan of Indian authors in general, and Indian family sagas in particular, in spite of a sameness in the genre recently. This book, though, is an original, and gives us an insider look at the caste system, and how it affected one Brahmin family over the years. How some of them retained the old traditions, and some didn't, and what this did to the family. It was a compelling read - had to finish - the writing is straightforward narrative, and very funny at times. On the down side, there were some loose ends. We know where everybody ended up, but not why; or what anybody thought about what happened, or even if they had any feelings at all.

A long book but I enjoyed it, I learned a lot about Hindu culture and mythology along the way.

...11 more reader reviews

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Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright, and journalist. She was awarded first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She lives with the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock and their children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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