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
    Genre: Novels

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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.

The information about The Toss of a Lemon shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Reader Reviews

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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.

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.

Andrea

Sweeping Novel about Change in India
I enjoyed this sweeping novel of India in the 20th century as experienced by members of one family. Caught between ancient traditions and the beginning of the new India, the family must learn new ways of being a family. Most interesting to me was the theme of the unfairness of the caste system and the place of women in Indian society. Two of the main characters are women and much of the novel's events revolve around them and their reactions to changing social and cultural traditions.Overall the book paints a compelling portrait of a family in changing times in India or anywhere in the world. The book was also a fascinating telling of customs and culture of India. A book club would find much to talk about here, but it is to be enjoyed by anyone who loves a long read about another country.

Victoria

A Pleasant Surprise
To be honest, I had my doubts about this book. At face value the story line appeared simple and I couldn't fathom how the author could draw it out over the course of 600+ pages and entertain the reader all at the same time. But entertain she does. Padma Viswanathan artfully draws together a compelling family saga with the deeply involved Indian caste system, and tops it off with a hint of intrigue and magical realism.
This book is a wonderful read; not too demanding, yet very insightful.
Suggested With: A chaise lounge and a sparkling fruit drink.

Aleta

Fate, Faith and Family
The Toss of a Lemon is a swim through southern Indian culture, religion, politics and social change in the early to mid-20th century. The lifelong experiences and relationships of Sivakami, a teenaged Tamil Brahmin widow, her extended family and servants depict in detail the hardships and comforts of a rigid, yet evolving system of expectations, limitations, privileges and taboos. The embedded history lesson is considerable.

The characters are well developed as a fine blend of strengths and weaknesses whose complexity is believable, and provides impetus past a few stalls in the book's pace. Viswanathan’s imagery is lovely, even haunting.

Having a modest understanding of India, I wonder if a glossary would help a less familiar reader? The more one knows of India, the richer the novel becomes. Nevertheless, for anyone who enjoys the depth of a well-spun tale of life in another place and time, this is an excellent choice.

Colleen

The Toss of a Lemon
Padma Viswanathan has written a superb novel. She takes us to a time and place where we are consumed with the story of the lives of a Brahman family through several generations. She tells you of their successes and disappointments, their good times and bad times and you just can’t put the book down. The cast of characters has an intensity and vividness that never waives. Viswanathan’s writing style is excellent and the story flows as all good stories should. I highly recommend this book.

...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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