Review: The Toss of a Lemon

I recently finished Padma Vaswanathan’s terrific first novel The Toss of a Lemon, which I received some time ago from Random House. I would have to say that this has been one of the best books I’ve read recently.

This is the story of Sivakami, a Brahmin woman who comes to her husband’s house as a child bride in turn-of-the-century India. As foretold in their horoscopes, her husband passes away only a few years after their marriage, plunging her into widowhood at the age of eighteen. As is custom during that time and for a woman of her caste, she shaves her hair, clothes herself in a white sari, refuses all touch from sunup to sundown and removes herself from public life (for a widow is considered a bad omen). While she is considered a most devout widow, she breaks from tradition in one crucial way – she moves back to her husband’s house instead of remaining within her brothers’ household, maintaining the lands and wealth through a lower-caste assistant hand-chosen by her husband prior to his death. She does this for her son, to give him the secular education that he would not have had otherwise. This decision gives her bright but troubled son the direction he needs, but will ultimately set him on a path in complete opposition to that of his mother.

The book covers a broad period of Indian history (roughly 1890-1950s). The period was one of tremendous unrest, where the caste system in India began to break down. Historically Brahmins were considered the highest caste – the morally superior intellectuals. Leading up to independance and partition, their influence and wealth began to fade as the caste system began to break down (although, arguably, it is still in existence today).

One of the most difficult things about writing (or reading) anything historical is the tendency to look at customs or traditions through today’s North American standards. Far too often in historical fiction, characters speak or act in manners that would be wholly inappropriate for the time and place. Even more unfortunate, there is often a not-so-subtle rebuke in the author’s writing style – as though they will have the character act in a period-appropriate manner, yet still make it abundantly clear that they, as the author, do not agree with it. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Viswanathan’s ability to be non-judgmental about customs that were wholly typical of that time, such as child-brides, arranged marriages and the caste system. We see some of the characters moving away from these practices, but as a reader I never had the impression that Viswanathan agrees with either point of view or that she was siding with one character over another, rather that she was merely illustrating the social changes that occurred during that time period. The neutrality of her writing allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story, to reflect on the practices and draw my own conclusions instead of constantly being reminded that many of the practices are considered wholly-inappropriate by today’s Western standards.

The story itself moves along at a good pace. At 600+ pages, this is not a short book, and yet I never felt that the story wasn’t moving. Despite the jacket copy, which lead me to believe the story is told only through the eyes of Sivakami, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book changes focus several times to other characters, as the story requires. Through each of these women’s eyes we see the subtle way that social change is altering the structure of their families and their caste traditions. Because the focus of the novel is on the story of the family first, and history second, this is not as heavy a novel as some historically based stories. The historical events are never so overt as to become confusing. That said, those readers with no historical background on the events in India around independence or partition or understanding of the caste system could find the book confusing, but I felt that Viswanathan subtly relayed any information that was an absolute necessity for understanding the story, particularly with regards to caste customs.

I only found two aspects of the novel disappointing. First, there were times in the book where I wished we had spent more time with a certain character to better understand their motives or reasoning, particularly in the case of Vairum, Sivakami’s son. Perhaps the book was already too long, or more likely it was deliberate. Like in any family, we are left to wonder at another’s words or actions, seeing them as an enigma. That said, we are often given subtle hints or clues as to the cause of a character’s behaviour. The best example of this would be Sivakami’s son-in-law, who we can only infer from his behaviour and from our modern understanding that he likely has some disorder such as ADD or mania.

My other issue was the rather abrupt ending to the book. While I understand that as the story of a family, that there may not be a specific end to the story per se, I wish that the last chapter and epilogue had been handled a little differently. I found the last page of the last chapter particularly choppy, as though Viswanathan and her editor had difficulty in nailing down a final sequence of events that felt climactic enough to be an ending while still reflecting that this was a family with a story that would continue long after the final page.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Despite my disappointment with the ending the book stands on its many other strengths. Particularly, the writing is excellent and highly evocative of the time and place. Reading it I could almost believe I was there, something I find occurs all too rarely in historical fiction. I am looking forward to Viswanathan’s next novel, and hope that her sophomore effort builds upon the foundation she’s laid here.

Grade: B+