Review of The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
The Toss of a Lemon
by Padma Viswanathan
This is not a book for everyone, in the sense that you must be receptive in order to read it, or else you'll want to put it down after the first 100 pages (if that). It's a slow story, rich in details and dwelling on significant moments in the lives of its many characters. There's very little action and a lot of deliberation. It takes dedication and patience to see it through until the end. If you have that, however, then hopefully you enjoyed The Toss of a Lemon as much as I did.
Padma Viswanathan provides us with an intimate perspective in a culture that is foreign (at least to me). To those of us who have grown up in a society without castes, a society without child marriage, parts of the story may seem strange and even unconscionable. It challenges us to keep an open mind and remember that just because our society taught us something is moral or immoral does not automatically make it so.
I enjoyed watching the development of a single family over the course of sixty years and four generations. The events within the family parallelled and reacted to the events going on in India at the time, causing alliances to form and branches of the family to schism. With the exception of one father who marries into the family, Goli (whose antagonism seems just a little too enthusiastic), Viswanathan's family squabbles illustrate the tension between the "old" and "new" orders--the former wanting to preserve the traditions and values of the caste system, with the latter pushing for the abolishment of caste and replacing superstition with science and medicine. Some members of the family resist this transition while others embrace it wholeheartedly. With The Toss of a Lemon, it's not a matter of taking sides and deciding who is "right." Rather, I enjoyed watching what choices each character made.
Parts of the book are slow, and I didn't like every aspect of the story. One of the antagonists, Goli, didn't seem realistic all the time. Toward the end of the story, his role was marginalized (and to be honest, I liked it that way). Likewise, the pace of the story slows even further for the last 1/3 of the book until suddenly hitting the denouement, where everything wraps up in the blink of an eye. I knew this would happen because I was nearing the end of the numerous pages, even though I didn't want the story to end.
The Toss of a Lemon is an excellent piece of character driven fiction. It took a good chunk of time for me to read, but it was worth that time (unlike some books), and I appreciate how it educated me about another culture without insisting that I accept the culture in any particular light--Viswanathan presents historical events and her characters' lives in a very neutral way, allowing us to form our own opinions and remember that just because one is raised to believe something, that doesn't necessarily make it right or just. As the times change, so do the mores, and this will lead to conflict across generations. It's our actions during such times of conflict that test us as people. Seldom do you get to see three generations of a family interact in this manner, however, which is why The Toss of a Lemon earned my praise.