The Toss of a Lemon – Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon – Padma Viswanathan

Padma Viswanathan tells a ripping good yarn. The year is 1896; Sivakami is 10 and her family is looking for a husband. They visit the healer in her mother’s home town to have her star chart done; he begs the family to let him marry her. Though his own chart says that he might die in the ninth year of his marriage, the birth of a son might stop his death from coming to pass. When the son is finally born, he does the calculations and realizes that he will die. And because they are Brahmins, and because Sivakami will enter a world of virtual seclusion upon his death, he does everything he can to prepare her, including hiring a local man, Michumi (who also happens to be gay and therefore trustworthy) to oversee the properties.

And then the story wafts over the next three generations, with Savakami holding the family together with the help of Michumi. Ripping good yarn. One of the things that was fascinating to watch was the arc of superstition and magic. Sivakami believes in the superstitions of her tradition–tradition, of course, being one of the few things allowed her. But her son Vairun (who by the way has vitiligo, which is a great thing to see represented in fiction) wholeheartedly rejects the idea of Brahmins’ inherent superiority and of all superstition, including star charts–despite the fact that his and his sister’s both come true. And it’s interesting to see how the story starts in one place–a mythologized place of legend–and ends grounded in the modern world, with problems blamed on people, not on gods.

To be absolutely, completely honest, I lost interest in The Toss of a Lemon toward the end, and it felt like a bit of work to finish it. And I didn’t really like the ending–don’t worry, no actual spoilers–because the end of an era, which has taken the novel almost 600 pages covering sixty-odd years, feels too explicitly stated. Still, if you read one book this summer, make it this. In addition to being a gripping read, Viswanathan’s prose is gorgeous.

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