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The Toss of a Lemon

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In south India in 1896, ten-year old Sivakami is about to embark on a new life. Hanumarathnam, a village healer with some renown as an astrologer, has approached her parents with a marriage proposal. In keeping with custom, he provides his prospective in-laws with his horoscope. The problem is that his includes a prediction, albeit a weak one, that he will die in his tenth In south India in 1896, ten-year old Sivakami is about to embark on a new life. Hanumarathnam, a village healer with some renown as an astrologer, has approached her parents with a marriage proposal. In keeping with custom, he provides his prospective in-laws with his horoscope. The problem is that his includes a prediction, albeit a weak one, that he will die in his tenth year of marriage. Despite the ominous horoscope, Sivakami’s parents hesitate only briefly, won over by the young man and his family’s reputation as good, upstanding Brahmins. Once married, Sivikami and Hanumarathnam grow to love one another and the bride, now in her teens, settles into a happy life. But the predictions of Hanumarathnam’s horoscope are never far from her new husband’s mind. When their first child is born, as a strategy for accurately determining his child’s astrological charts, Hanumarathnam insists the midwife toss a lemon from the window of the birthing room the moment his child appears. All is well with their first child, a daughter, Thangam, whose birth has a positive influence on her father’s astrological future. But this influence is fleeting: when a son, Vairum, is born, his horoscope confirms that his father will die within three years. Resigned to his fate, Hanumarathnam sets himself to the unpleasant task of readying his household for his imminent death. Knowing the hardships and social restrictions Sivakami will face as a Brahmin widow, he hires and trains a servant boy called Muchami to help Sivakami manage the household and properties until Vairum is of age. When Sivakami is eighteen, Hanumarathnam dies as predicted. Relentless in her adherence to the traditions that define her Brahmin caste, she shaves her head and dons the white sari of the widow. With some reluctance, she moves to her family home to raise her children under the protection of her brothers, but then realizes that they are not acting in the best interests of her children. With her daughter already married to an unreliable husband of her brothers’ choosing, and Vairum’s future also at risk, Sivakami leaves her brothers and returns to her marital home to raise her family. With the freedom to make decisions for her son’s future, Sivakami defies tradition and chooses to give him a secular education. While her choice ensures that Vairum fulfills his promise, 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.


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In south India in 1896, ten-year old Sivakami is about to embark on a new life. Hanumarathnam, a village healer with some renown as an astrologer, has approached her parents with a marriage proposal. In keeping with custom, he provides his prospective in-laws with his horoscope. The problem is that his includes a prediction, albeit a weak one, that he will die in his tenth In south India in 1896, ten-year old Sivakami is about to embark on a new life. Hanumarathnam, a village healer with some renown as an astrologer, has approached her parents with a marriage proposal. In keeping with custom, he provides his prospective in-laws with his horoscope. The problem is that his includes a prediction, albeit a weak one, that he will die in his tenth year of marriage. Despite the ominous horoscope, Sivakami’s parents hesitate only briefly, won over by the young man and his family’s reputation as good, upstanding Brahmins. Once married, Sivikami and Hanumarathnam grow to love one another and the bride, now in her teens, settles into a happy life. But the predictions of Hanumarathnam’s horoscope are never far from her new husband’s mind. When their first child is born, as a strategy for accurately determining his child’s astrological charts, Hanumarathnam insists the midwife toss a lemon from the window of the birthing room the moment his child appears. All is well with their first child, a daughter, Thangam, whose birth has a positive influence on her father’s astrological future. But this influence is fleeting: when a son, Vairum, is born, his horoscope confirms that his father will die within three years. Resigned to his fate, Hanumarathnam sets himself to the unpleasant task of readying his household for his imminent death. Knowing the hardships and social restrictions Sivakami will face as a Brahmin widow, he hires and trains a servant boy called Muchami to help Sivakami manage the household and properties until Vairum is of age. When Sivakami is eighteen, Hanumarathnam dies as predicted. Relentless in her adherence to the traditions that define her Brahmin caste, she shaves her head and dons the white sari of the widow. With some reluctance, she moves to her family home to raise her children under the protection of her brothers, but then realizes that they are not acting in the best interests of her children. With her daughter already married to an unreliable husband of her brothers’ choosing, and Vairum’s future also at risk, Sivakami leaves her brothers and returns to her marital home to raise her family. With the freedom to make decisions for her son’s future, Sivakami defies tradition and chooses to give him a secular education. While her choice ensures that Vairum fulfills his promise, 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.

30 review for The Toss of a Lemon

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kara Babcock

    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 Viswanath 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Emily Coffee and Commentary

    A fascinating and emotional family saga that details the intricacies and nuance of family ties, caste, social and political change, and adherence to tradition in early 1900’s South India. The characters were so well rounded, complicated, and real; strict in conviction but filled with love and hope, disappointment and longing. The generous descriptions of everyday life and tradition in historic India was engaging and so interesting, the ending left me with a number of emotions. Such a great read A fascinating and emotional family saga that details the intricacies and nuance of family ties, caste, social and political change, and adherence to tradition in early 1900’s South India. The characters were so well rounded, complicated, and real; strict in conviction but filled with love and hope, disappointment and longing. The generous descriptions of everyday life and tradition in historic India was engaging and so interesting, the ending left me with a number of emotions. Such a great read for history fans.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Joanne

    Well, Padma Viswanathan has written an ambitious novel of 600 pages. When I got to page 294 I decided I had given her a fair chance and put the book down. I found the plot boring, I didn't care about the characters, I couldn't feel the evening breeze, nor smell the cooking aromas. So what was the purpose of reading on? It is another tale of the oppression of the caste society in India and the attempt of modernity to erase its wrongs, leaving large scars in its wake. Well, Padma Viswanathan has written an ambitious novel of 600 pages. When I got to page 294 I decided I had given her a fair chance and put the book down. I found the plot boring, I didn't care about the characters, I couldn't feel the evening breeze, nor smell the cooking aromas. So what was the purpose of reading on? It is another tale of the oppression of the caste society in India and the attempt of modernity to erase its wrongs, leaving large scars in its wake.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Anze

    “She had always thought of her life as a series of submissions to God. What if she has been making her own decisions all along?” Sivakami is ten years old when she is married to Hanumarathnam, a village healer with good Brahmin standing. Unknown to Sivakami and following tradition, Hanumarathnam reveals to his new bride's parents that his horoscope shows that he will die in his tenth year of marriage. The couple grows to love each other but his prediction haunts their lives and marks the lives o “She had always thought of her life as a series of submissions to God. What if she has been making her own decisions all along?” Sivakami is ten years old when she is married to Hanumarathnam, a village healer with good Brahmin standing. Unknown to Sivakami and following tradition, Hanumarathnam reveals to his new bride's parents that his horoscope shows that he will die in his tenth year of marriage. The couple grows to love each other but his prediction haunts their lives and marks the lives of their children. When Hanumarathnam does indeed die according to his prediction, Sivakami must take charge of her family. When her brothers prove not to have her best interests at heart, she decides to run her family in her own way. She leaves her maternal home and returns to her marital one. What follows is a complex battle with culture and tradition that both strengthen and complicate her family bonds. This book sat on my TBR for a while but I believe I choose the right moment to read it. Sivakami's parents are approached by Hanumarathnam. While they are concerned about his horoscope and its predictions, they also know that someone of his standing and caste (he is Brahmin like Sivakami and her family) will be good match for their daughter. Sivakami is a bride at 10 years old and a mother in her teens. Time has made her love her husband and when his horoscope predictions come true, its a tough blow. Sivakami is a widow at 18 years old and at the complete mercy of her male relatives. That is until, she leaves her maternal home and lives permanently in her marital one. As a widow and woman though, even as a Brahmin woman, she is limited in what she can do but still Sivakami fights for her son and daughter. While the family grows and expands, there is a collision of tradition and new ideas which bring conflict into the family. A narrative of a multigenerational family in the Brahmin community, this was a complex, profound and intricate read. A story about caste, traditions (orthodox & new), superstitions, culture and the complex relationships of a family, the story follows Sivakami as she goes from girl to bride and mother, then widow and ultimately a matriarchal figure for the family. As I knew very little about the caste system of India, this was an eye-opening read for me. The characters are very well fleshed out and there is a palpable tension on these pages. Not much happens in this book in terms of action. I found myself frustrated in spots beacause there is a long list of characters and even now I could not name them all. I will say, in all honesty, that this was not a book I was rushing home to read. The pace does feel like it drags at times and the length makes this a daunting read. Having said that, I do appreciate the experience of having read this book. This is a book that requites patience and an open mind. I found the ending equal parts sad and realistic. This is by far one of the most challenging books I have read but one that I will not be forgetting in a while. The caste system of India is a fascinating study. The Brahmins are/were considered the highest ranking of the four social classes of Hinduism: Brahmins (priests, teachers and landowners), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (farmers, merchants and traders) and Sudras (unskilled laborers). The caste system, came about at the time of British colonial rule. As such, Brahmins had better jobs and held more influence. The lower caste people were considered subpar and dependent on the higher castes. This lead to a wide economic and social inequality. Women though, regardless of their caste, were still second to the men. Stiil, the honor of a family heavily weighted on them. I was shocked to learn that the lower limit for a girl to marry was 7 years old (that has been largely been declared illegal now) and some groups believed it was better for a girl to marry before hitting puberty (I assume this has something to do with purity and chastity). Life did not get easier for widows, they were expected to remain out of the public eye and have an almost spirital existance. I do love a book that broadens my horizons and this one did just that.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

    This novel will inspire all kinds of insipid comparisons to other Indian-diaspora writers, and I don't really understand why they chose to use the terrible Yann Martel blurb about "getting through" it, and they shouldn't call anything a "saga" anymore, people haven't the patience for it. BUT ANYWAY: I loved this book. I am tempted to read it again from the beginning, all 600+ pages of it. I wished it had kept going. I wished it would never stop. It follows Sivakami and her extended Brahmin famil This novel will inspire all kinds of insipid comparisons to other Indian-diaspora writers, and I don't really understand why they chose to use the terrible Yann Martel blurb about "getting through" it, and they shouldn't call anything a "saga" anymore, people haven't the patience for it. BUT ANYWAY: I loved this book. I am tempted to read it again from the beginning, all 600+ pages of it. I wished it had kept going. I wished it would never stop. It follows Sivakami and her extended Brahmin family over some sixty years, and the details! the food! the rituals and delicate magical realism! somehow it all combines to create a world that made me feel homesick and exhilarated and completely absorbed. I loved everything about it, all the characters both good and evil. I could have read it forever. well, okay, for a good long time.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Swaroop

    Phew! Finally finished the book. It's been the "second book" in my Currently-Reading list for quite some time now... I did read few long books earlier, but this one felt to be much longer than all. That does not mean, that this book was not interesting. I feel every book should have some kind of purpose - and in case of this book, it was not very clear as to what might be the purpose... It went on and on through generation to generation. But, then it now feels, maybe that's how reality and "real Phew! Finally finished the book. It's been the "second book" in my Currently-Reading list for quite some time now... I did read few long books earlier, but this one felt to be much longer than all. That does not mean, that this book was not interesting. I feel every book should have some kind of purpose - and in case of this book, it was not very clear as to what might be the purpose... It went on and on through generation to generation. But, then it now feels, maybe that's how reality and "real lives" are! Life goes on.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    this book is powerful and fascinating! A life-changing book!

  8. 4 out of 5

    ellen

    I took my time reading this novel. Normally I consume books rapidly, hoping to jump to the next one on my list. Toss of Lemon made me slow down, not because of difficult prose or boredom, but because I wanted to savor the story. The novel traces history through the lens of a family which is based loosely on the author's own family history. It made me want to learn more about India and Indian history, something that I have not been exposed to beyond Ghandi. I highly recommend this book as a long I took my time reading this novel. Normally I consume books rapidly, hoping to jump to the next one on my list. Toss of Lemon made me slow down, not because of difficult prose or boredom, but because I wanted to savor the story. The novel traces history through the lens of a family which is based loosely on the author's own family history. It made me want to learn more about India and Indian history, something that I have not been exposed to beyond Ghandi. I highly recommend this book as a long leisurely read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jim Elkins

    Why I Don't Read Novels to Learn Anything Reviewers on this site and LibraryThing call this novel "informative," and say it's a look into the "psyche" of a Brahman family in India. It is said to be an "epic," which opens a "window" onto a world many readers won't know, "enriching" our experience and making us more sympathetic to "exotic" customs and ideas. The book, in other words, functions in two ways: it's a romantic epic of a family, and it tells us about rural Brahman life in India. It's bot Why I Don't Read Novels to Learn Anything Reviewers on this site and LibraryThing call this novel "informative," and say it's a look into the "psyche" of a Brahman family in India. It is said to be an "epic," which opens a "window" onto a world many readers won't know, "enriching" our experience and making us more sympathetic to "exotic" customs and ideas. The book, in other words, functions in two ways: it's a romantic epic of a family, and it tells us about rural Brahman life in India. It's both documentary and entertainment, both socially responsible and escapist. Every once in a while there is a good reason to read a novel to learn about some unfamiliar part of the world. If I am intolerant, I can read something on the people I mistrust or dislike. If I need information that isn't available in nonfiction or documentaries, I might turn to a novel. But that is not what makes novels worth reading, writing, or thinking about, despite the fact that a high percentage of the current production of novels, up to and including writers like Zadie Smith, are meant to be "informative" about some part of the world. A novel is a way of recording thought, and of wrestling with the relation between thought and language. It really does not matter what the novel is about. If the novel as a form is taken seriously enough, it does not matter if it has any "information" about the world: Viswanathan could have made up not only her characters but everything about Brahman life. When the author is preoccupied with telling a grand romantic multi-generational tale of a family, and informing her readers about a culture they don't know, it is unlikely she is also thinking about the history of the novel, or about the most interesting things that novels might still do in 2016. "The Toss of a Lemon" implies a certain history of the novel, which includes 19th century English novels, Forster, Mann, Maugham, and late Romantics. If this novel was the sum total of what the 20th and 21st centuries have achieved with novels, there would have been no modernism or postmodernism, only a continuing belated romanticism, hoping continuously for a return to an impossible past. What Viswanathan really wants is mid-20th century popular romanticism, combined with an ideal precolonial authenticity. This is another book I read for the 2016 AWP meeting in Los Angeles, which turned out -- from this perspective -- to be all about novels as sources of information about the world, and very little about novels as historical practices, in which authors try to figure out what they can do with language and with their predecessors' achievements.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Megan Sullivan

    It's a quietly fascinating book. I'm at the point where I can't put it down, not because the plot is driving or it's suspenseful; it's one of those books that sneaks up on you and really pulls you in. It describes the daily life, religion, and culture of India from the late 19th century on, through the eyes of a Brahmin family and the trials they endure. The descriptions of the rituals surrounding daily life are fascinating, and the momentum of the story is quietly building now that I'm halfway It's a quietly fascinating book. I'm at the point where I can't put it down, not because the plot is driving or it's suspenseful; it's one of those books that sneaks up on you and really pulls you in. It describes the daily life, religion, and culture of India from the late 19th century on, through the eyes of a Brahmin family and the trials they endure. The descriptions of the rituals surrounding daily life are fascinating, and the momentum of the story is quietly building now that I'm halfway through. Looking forward to the rest...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Paula Margulies

    I've read a number of books by Indian-American authors during my Centrum residency in Port Townsend (the buyer at the local library appears to have a fascination with all things Indian, since so many of this genre grace the shelves), but this is my favorite of all. Not the jazziest title (which has to do with the main character's astrologer husband, who asks the midwives delivering his children to toss a lemon through the window, so he'll know the exact time of their births and can forecast thei I've read a number of books by Indian-American authors during my Centrum residency in Port Townsend (the buyer at the local library appears to have a fascination with all things Indian, since so many of this genre grace the shelves), but this is my favorite of all. Not the jazziest title (which has to do with the main character's astrologer husband, who asks the midwives delivering his children to toss a lemon through the window, so he'll know the exact time of their births and can forecast their horoscopes). This book is a generational novel about a ten-year-old Tamil Brahmin girl, Sivakami, and her brief marriage, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I loved the clear, prescient writing and the touch of magical realism (just enough to make the story poignant and beautiful). Some of the characters as nearly perfect in their generosity and humanity (Sivakami and her closeted gay servant, Muchami),while others are painfully flawed (Sivakami's son, Vairum, for example, who is unloved by his father and suffers the effects throughout his life). The story features a lot of local history and a sweeping sense of the changes affecting India during Sivakami's lifetime. A brilliant, beautiful book -- one that is difficult to put down, especially at the end.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Doriana Bisegna

    I never thought I would ever come across another novel as wonderful and rich as A Fine Balance…but I have and The Toss of a Lemon has completely surpassed my expectations. How someone can write a debut novel of this length and breadth is beyond me. The writing, the story lines, the characters, the history and societal norms of India in the late 19th and early 20th century all come together flawlessly! I am totally in awe of the raw talent that this young writer possesses and was totally thrilled I never thought I would ever come across another novel as wonderful and rich as A Fine Balance…but I have and The Toss of a Lemon has completely surpassed my expectations. How someone can write a debut novel of this length and breadth is beyond me. The writing, the story lines, the characters, the history and societal norms of India in the late 19th and early 20th century all come together flawlessly! I am totally in awe of the raw talent that this young writer possesses and was totally thrilled to see her name chosen for the Giller 2014 long list!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nitya Iyer

    I may have enjoyed this book much more if I didn't identify so aggressively with Vairum, the one character in the book who sees through the vapid traditional orthopraxy of tamil brahmins. In fact, this book so accurately captures almost every aspect of brahminical behavior that I find so offensive and distasteful that I was almost struck down with some sort of post traumatic stress from encounters with extended family in the past. So while i salute the writing, I struggled with the book because I may have enjoyed this book much more if I didn't identify so aggressively with Vairum, the one character in the book who sees through the vapid traditional orthopraxy of tamil brahmins. In fact, this book so accurately captures almost every aspect of brahminical behavior that I find so offensive and distasteful that I was almost struck down with some sort of post traumatic stress from encounters with extended family in the past. So while i salute the writing, I struggled with the book because I desperately hated almost every character in it with a visceral passion.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jaanaki

    "The Toss ofa Lemon " by Padma Vishwanathan . This was a gift by one of my favorites here,@inkless.sne .The book is a multigenerational story of a TamilBrahmin family from 1896 to 1956 that revolves around the family matriarch Sivakami who is widowed at the tender age of 18 and her children,grandchildren and great grand children .I could relate to this story so much being a TamBrahm myself and the bonus was that there was a character named Jaanaki in the book just like me .The book was even more "The Toss ofa Lemon " by Padma Vishwanathan . This was a gift by one of my favorites here,@inkless.sne .The book is a multigenerational story of a TamilBrahmin family from 1896 to 1956 that revolves around the family matriarch Sivakami who is widowed at the tender age of 18 and her children,grandchildren and great grand children .I could relate to this story so much being a TamBrahm myself and the bonus was that there was a character named Jaanaki in the book just like me .The book was even more special because @inkless.sne had attempted to draw a family tree on a piece of white paper which slipped out of the thick tome when I was reading it and suddenly I could see this story through her eyes.Naturally,I kept referring to that piece of paper throughout my read - The legacy from one reader to another 😊 This book will also be my entry for the #ReadingWomanChallenge under prompt 6 #multigenerationalfamily . In essence ,reading this book was like watching a family soap opera .The writer has captured the vibrance,peace and contentment , a life in a quiet village bestows on its inhabitants .Some relationships stand out -Sivakami and Vairam, Jaanaki and Bharathi,Jaanaki and Kamalam and of course Sivakami and Muchami.The conflicts between members of the same community when new traditions replace old and the confusion the the younger generation go through in choosing sides has been penned beautifully, together with the insecurity and pain the older generation go through .There is a lot of history between the pages and one gets a chance to see the Madras of those days .My only contention with the writer was the way she described Rukmani Arundale ,founder of Kalakshetra as flirting with Vairum.I personally feel as women we do not have the right to label fellow women in a way that chooses our fancy or a story plot .Another fact was that the climax was very incomplete and underwhelming .Maybe,I loved the characters so much that I wanted to know what happened to all of them 😊😊😊😊😊 In the end,however,I realised that I will never forget Sivakami ,just like Clara or Ursula❤️❤️

  15. 4 out of 5

    Danika

    What an epic novel! At over 600 pages, this is not a book to be taken lightly,. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy it and it kept my interest quite well throughout. It spans 50+ years and follows the life of Sivakami and her progeny. She is both married and widowed at an early age. Left with 2 children, she spends the rest of her life raising them and then their children. Set in India around the beginning of the 20th century, it has a backdrop of Indian independence. Sivakami and her family are of What an epic novel! At over 600 pages, this is not a book to be taken lightly,. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy it and it kept my interest quite well throughout. It spans 50+ years and follows the life of Sivakami and her progeny. She is both married and widowed at an early age. Left with 2 children, she spends the rest of her life raising them and then their children. Set in India around the beginning of the 20th century, it has a backdrop of Indian independence. Sivakami and her family are of the Brahmin caste. I never knew so much about the caste system and find it a bit hard to wrap my head around. While I'm sure they really do feel completely repulsed by the idea of sharing a meal with someone from another caste, it's a very foreign concept for me. It became a central theme of the book as some family members were modern and eschewed the caste system while others were very traditional. Anyway, I've rambled on long enough. The author has done a stellar job of developing a sweeping story with compelling characters. It is a bit hard to keep track of the many people in the book, but that's a very minor quibble. Definitely recommend this one, esp. if you are at all interested in Indian culture.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Hooma

    This book started off well but became an absolute drag to read. I ended up not finishing the book. The author got far too muddled in the details of each character's life that it became hard to understand what was going on with whom. Though I always enjoy a family's journey, this became far too slow for me. Also, I think the author got too bogged down in the details of cultural and religious events as well as political developments. It gets very difficult for the reader to keep up with these deta This book started off well but became an absolute drag to read. I ended up not finishing the book. The author got far too muddled in the details of each character's life that it became hard to understand what was going on with whom. Though I always enjoy a family's journey, this became far too slow for me. Also, I think the author got too bogged down in the details of cultural and religious events as well as political developments. It gets very difficult for the reader to keep up with these details and eventually the reader loses sight of the plot. These criticisms aside, I was intrigued at the large role that superstition plays in the South East culture. I enjoyed learning about the clash between modernism and traditionalism. I also really came to admire the character of Sivakami, a strong and silent woman.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Phair

    I had a hard time keeping track of all the people in this one- glad of the family tree provided but it wasn't enough and I had trouble keeping straight who was a girl & who a boy from names alone. Very dense novel with so much detail it overwhelmed but I learned a lot about Brahmin culture. I felt this could have been edited down a lot. Particularly enjoyed the latter parts about the early days of Bollywood. This was worth reading (but exhausting). Not a book I'd push on others unless they were I had a hard time keeping track of all the people in this one- glad of the family tree provided but it wasn't enough and I had trouble keeping straight who was a girl & who a boy from names alone. Very dense novel with so much detail it overwhelmed but I learned a lot about Brahmin culture. I felt this could have been edited down a lot. Particularly enjoyed the latter parts about the early days of Bollywood. This was worth reading (but exhausting). Not a book I'd push on others unless they were big on learning about India in transition to the modern world.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    I loved this book. Loved it. We had a relationship. Like many love affairs it started off awesome, couldn't put it down -- and then it ended abruptly. I loved this book. Loved it. We had a relationship. Like many love affairs it started off awesome, couldn't put it down -- and then it ended abruptly.

  19. 4 out of 5

    ☕Laura

    Ratings: Writing 4 Story line 4 Characters 5 Emotional impact 4 Overall rating 4.25

  20. 5 out of 5

    Diane Kistner

    When I started reading this book, all 619 pages of it filled with names I had to clumsily sound out loud to myself before I could visualize the places and persons, I thought "This is going to be too big for me." I am coming to realize that a few decades of getting my information, like so many Americans do--in fast bursts, swiftly flowing plot lines, simple sentences and words, and facile caricatures--has served to atrophy my brain. (Me, who as a ten-year-old, greedily devoured the likes of "A Ta When I started reading this book, all 619 pages of it filled with names I had to clumsily sound out loud to myself before I could visualize the places and persons, I thought "This is going to be too big for me." I am coming to realize that a few decades of getting my information, like so many Americans do--in fast bursts, swiftly flowing plot lines, simple sentences and words, and facile caricatures--has served to atrophy my brain. (Me, who as a ten-year-old, greedily devoured the likes of "A Tale of Two Cities.") A hundred pages into it, I thought, "Oh, no, it will not do to put this book down until I have given it my all. It will not get the best of me!" The life described in "The Toss of a Lemon" comes across as deliciously alien, the names and relationships unfamiliar, and even the cadences and tense of it all somewhat strange. I can't quite put my finger on why, but the narrative (cast mostly in almost too-present layers of present tense) completely alters one's sense of being and time. For example, consider this observation of the way the widow Sivakami's son's new wife, Vani, fits into and subtly changes the sense of the household: "Pervasive as Thangam's dust, Vani's music is everywhere there is air, in the house and spilling out onto the street: between two people in a converstion, in all the cooking pots, travelling in through nostrils and out in snores. Sivakami has become accustomed to it, and now, when Vani is not playing, there is silence in all those places where before there was nothing." (p. 242) This is not your straightforward, mind-numbing television-scripted fare, certainly; but the writing does have a rather hypnotic (or perhaps meditative would be the better word) effect. I have found myself quietly but inexorably drawn into Sivakami's world, an experience that alters my senses as much as it massages my mind, almost as if by vibration. When I surface from the reading of it (one cannot read this book in one sitting), I am at first not sure if it's day or night. It's almost like emerging from a movie theatre after being engrossed in a fantastic movie for hours. "The Toss of a Lemon," I must conclude, is a haunting, masterful work by a writer of substantial skill and talent. Very good.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Tammi

    India, 1896. Ten-year-old Sivakami is married to Hanumarathnam, a respected healer and astrologer. The marriage is a happy one, and they become parents to their beautiful daughter Thangam and ambitious son Vairum. But a shadow hangs above it all-- Hanumarathnam has long known that his horoscope foretells his own death in the tenth year of his marriage. When the worst comes true, Sivakami adapts to the traditions and customs expected of widows, save for one act of rebellion...she does not stay to India, 1896. Ten-year-old Sivakami is married to Hanumarathnam, a respected healer and astrologer. The marriage is a happy one, and they become parents to their beautiful daughter Thangam and ambitious son Vairum. But a shadow hangs above it all-- Hanumarathnam has long known that his horoscope foretells his own death in the tenth year of his marriage. When the worst comes true, Sivakami adapts to the traditions and customs expected of widows, save for one act of rebellion...she does not stay to live with her family, but decides to raise her children in her husband’s house. What follows is an expansive tale, unpacking several generations of Sivakami’s descendants as Indian independence and political tension looms. I found this novel in an old book sale a few months ago, and I’m super glad I stumbled across it! A little over a decade old now, The Toss of a Lemon is Viswanathan’s debut novel. It’s an ambitious, expansive undertaking of over 600 pages; the story’s timeline spills over many decades, and has a huge cast. There’s really not a singular core storyline, which makes for an unusual (but intriguing!) reading experience. Without the traditional building action and resolution, this novel reads more like a blurred anthology of stories. I had hoped for more focus on the storyline of Muchami, one of the novel’s main characters; he is the lifelong servant of Sivakami, and his experiences as a gay man during this time-frame interested me, but were largely glossed over or merely implied. In any case, this remains an excellent case study of a large family’s episodes of love and loss in a period of immense change in India.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Madumitha Selvaraj

    A long winding and insightful read about life in the late 19th and early 20th century South India of a Brahman family that starts with the marriage of a 10 Yr old Sivakami to a much older Hanumarathnam. The story is multi layered, not just with happenings and characters, but with the times and the mindset of people that feature in it. For those totally unfamiliar with the Brahmin culture of the India of those years, the writing might seem like a drag at places as Padma goes into a lot of everyda A long winding and insightful read about life in the late 19th and early 20th century South India of a Brahman family that starts with the marriage of a 10 Yr old Sivakami to a much older Hanumarathnam. The story is multi layered, not just with happenings and characters, but with the times and the mindset of people that feature in it. For those totally unfamiliar with the Brahmin culture of the India of those years, the writing might seem like a drag at places as Padma goes into a lot of everyday details of life of the characters, especially connecting it to the "caste" angle. But isn't that what makes a way of life unique? The detailing only adds, albeit expecting alot of patience from the reader, to showing the way of life in a very realistic manner. The differences in opinion of the characters at each stage are brought out with importance to all points of view and throughout the length of the book I felt myself wading through a complex network of human relations. Though the book essentially describes the Brahman way of things, I thought it was more of a peek into the mind of a very strong matriarch in a highly patriarchal system tossed around by fate, pushed to her limits and affected by her limitations, social and psychological. I recommend it to anyone who can find meaning in sitting by themselves with their thoughts for company.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Pat

    I loved this book on so many levels: thE etnography of early 20th century village India, the caste system info, the indominitable Sivikami, the four generation tale. The Brahmin restrictions were incredible; I kept reminding myself it was 1943 not 1843. Muchami is the most poignant character: loving two generations of Sivikami's children (essentially a surrogate father) while never having his own due to his "proclivities." The other childless man, Vairum, is so scarred by a lack of father, he ne I loved this book on so many levels: thE etnography of early 20th century village India, the caste system info, the indominitable Sivikami, the four generation tale. The Brahmin restrictions were incredible; I kept reminding myself it was 1943 not 1843. Muchami is the most poignant character: loving two generations of Sivikami's children (essentially a surrogate father) while never having his own due to his "proclivities." The other childless man, Vairum, is so scarred by a lack of father, he never really connects with his sister's children. The third generation is also fatherless and affected in different ways. Janaki struggles to rectify the strict values taught by her grandmother with the modern world. That world eventually overtakes Sivikami; the final scene in which a non-Brahmin eats in her home is her Rubicon. Even though other reviewers gripe about the book's length and over detailed descriptions of village life, I could have spent much more time with Sivikami's family and culture.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    I enjoyed this epic book based in Southeastern India, following a Brahmin family during the era of independence from Britain. I got lost quite a bit. the family tree was helpful. i wish there was a map. the underlying historic happenings were fascinating, along with the depiction of caste.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laureen

    Very long and kind of rambling. I didn't connect with many of the characters and others, who were important, seemed distant. The story kept me interested but I kept wondering where it was going. I would say 2 1/2 stars rounded up to 3. Very long and kind of rambling. I didn't connect with many of the characters and others, who were important, seemed distant. The story kept me interested but I kept wondering where it was going. I would say 2 1/2 stars rounded up to 3.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alanna

    Whew, there is a lot to process! I was drawn to the book because I have a weakness for lemons. It's ridiculous; but I was drawn into "The Toss of a Lemon" pretty quickly. It took me through a lot of emotions, which I think is the mark of a good storyteller. I enjoyed many of the individual stories, and especially the unique (to me) view on Indian history. I felt the writing was impartial, giving history for setting, not any political aim. Since I am quite ignorant about this, I learned with the Whew, there is a lot to process! I was drawn to the book because I have a weakness for lemons. It's ridiculous; but I was drawn into "The Toss of a Lemon" pretty quickly. It took me through a lot of emotions, which I think is the mark of a good storyteller. I enjoyed many of the individual stories, and especially the unique (to me) view on Indian history. I felt the writing was impartial, giving history for setting, not any political aim. Since I am quite ignorant about this, I learned with the characters about the events of their changing and forming country, which made me feel closer to them. It also made me curious to know more about India during this time. Having some basis in fact also made the story feel relevant, not petty. I felt that I was getting a feel for real people's experience during this time, as much as someone so distant from it could grasp. Though the focus is on a Brahmin family and their communities, I felt the writing was impartial. They are not presented as perfect, the reader is given plenty of room to decide what is right or wrong. I was always looking up traditions, festivals, articles of clothing or decoration, to get a better picture of and background to the scene. Sivakami's relationship to her children seemed to me in many ways a good view of how parents see their children and relationship with them. You want to scream at her, sometimes, to stop being so stupid. But by the end of the book, I thought Viswanathan had eloquently captured elements of parenthood that I've not seen so well portrayed: the hopes, delusions, focus on the good, acceptance, masochism. The downsides: I assume some characters represent some archetypes in Tamil culture, but that was never revealed. I never understood why certain female characters were basically silent and unfeeling. I didn't understand references to jewels and precious metals. Also, I strongly disliked one character...I don't need to like everyone in a story, I don't need everything to work out perfectly, but this particular one felt unbalanced, and it was off-putting. Overall, I enjoyed this book. I felt that I was stuck in the middle for a while, but leading up to it, and back out of it was very quick. I recommend it!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Trena

    This book is slow to start and quite long, so it might put some readers off. However, I think the reward is worth your patience in the first 150 pages or so. It's hard to have sympathy with a ruling class that rules by virtue of accident of birth and nothing more. It's even harder to write a sympathetic portrait of one who sees such a world vanish before her eyes while at the same time acknowledging the huge injustices and ludicrous prejudices such a system engenders, but Viswanathan succeeds env This book is slow to start and quite long, so it might put some readers off. However, I think the reward is worth your patience in the first 150 pages or so. It's hard to have sympathy with a ruling class that rules by virtue of accident of birth and nothing more. It's even harder to write a sympathetic portrait of one who sees such a world vanish before her eyes while at the same time acknowledging the huge injustices and ludicrous prejudices such a system engenders, but Viswanathan succeeds enviably. The book revolves around Sivakami, a Brahmin woman who dedicates her life to observing Hindu prescriptions to the nth degree, even when they are emotionally damaging and harsh to herself and certainly in a way that rigidly perpetuates class prejudices. But Sivakami is not a bad or ill-intentioned person. She is a true believer, a fierce mother, a protective grandmother, and a kind role model just doing the best she can. This is the story of the family that she fights incredibly hard to keep together and happy. It covers many generations and the slow evolution of an entrenched culture. Albeit in a completely different tone and context, the explanations of Hindu arcana reminded me a bit of the Orthodox Jewish rules and regulations described in Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir. It is interesting how religions that purport to have vastly differing belief systems come to parallel one another, from rigid rules governing the choosing, preparation, and consumption of food down to minutiae like holy strings (worn by Brahmins as janeu and Orthodox Jews as tzitzis). The endless descriptions of food gave me intense cravings for Indian. I will be going to Heritage India this weekend!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    While I do think The Toss of a Lemon has its lulls (what else would one expect from a 616-page novel?), I feel I gained a lot through reading it. I also understand its length; a tale of generations is no easy feat, and I don't think it could have been much shorter. Viswanathan does a beautiful job of joining the small with the large, the global, historical sense of India's caste system and its slow, partial demise with the micro-story of this one family within that context, which is, in reality, While I do think The Toss of a Lemon has its lulls (what else would one expect from a 616-page novel?), I feel I gained a lot through reading it. I also understand its length; a tale of generations is no easy feat, and I don't think it could have been much shorter. Viswanathan does a beautiful job of joining the small with the large, the global, historical sense of India's caste system and its slow, partial demise with the micro-story of this one family within that context, which is, in reality, a story that carries much weight and value. All historical roles are represented -- the traditional in Sivakami, the variation in Muchami, the radical in Vairum, and the traditional within a new world in Jakami. While all these roles are represented, they never seem to stagnate and instead are brought to life through unexpected relationships and intriguing character depth. The slow and lingering depiction of change within Indian tradition is a delight to witness, as it unfolds in what seemed to me a very natural and gradual way. An example of this is Viswanathan's choice not to call too much attention to Sivakami's ultimate sacrifice of bearing the duties of a widow until near the end of the book, whereas before, when it was common, it was treated as something one simply does out of tradition. Small surprises like this one make this book a delight to read, as every occurrence within the novel seems to be handled with utmost care, always taking into account the time in which scenes are taking place. I would highly recommend this book to a patient reader, one who can push through parts of the book that may seem irrelevant when reading them, but that play a crucial role in the overall portrait this novel so beautifully creates.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sissy

    I read this book for several reasons, chiefly that it felt good in my hand. The cover was soft and smooth in a textured way and the pages felt as if they were made from something special. Additionally, this has been the summer of india-interest for me and this book presented itself. It reminded me a lot of "London" by Edward Rutherford in the sense that they are both long epics and I enjoyed the first story line but not necessarily the ones following; though I kept reading because I was already s I read this book for several reasons, chiefly that it felt good in my hand. The cover was soft and smooth in a textured way and the pages felt as if they were made from something special. Additionally, this has been the summer of india-interest for me and this book presented itself. It reminded me a lot of "London" by Edward Rutherford in the sense that they are both long epics and I enjoyed the first story line but not necessarily the ones following; though I kept reading because I was already so invested. I would not recommend either except for historical interest reasons which were my own. However, Viswanathan's book failed me in a few expected ways. It is impossible to have the full scope of a story when it is told from a perspective that lived a fraction of it. Gratefully, this book is peppered with the type of incidents I enjoy such as Sivakami's expulsion from Viarum's home to wander beside the train and tempt death, the whole beginning portion of Hanumarathanam's life as astrologer. Another point of interest is how culture and tradition across countries evolves and decays; the fact that although this is india if i were to tell a story of my extended maternal family and their generations of living in georgia that it would follow the same arch. The book is a long read, and I was mired many times and considered abandoning it. I kept hoping for a climax and when it was finally given at the book's end it was not satisfying and told briefly and left me with a bad taste in my mouth at a character whom I had previously been fond of. I hope that writing this was cathartic for the author, but it has warned me off of family sagas for some time that stretch generations.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Fredsky

    I LOVED this book! It is the perfect long story (600 pages) of a Brahmin family, with all the twists and turns of fate and character that keep me engulfed. Most long family stories are not my cup of tea. But Viswanathan has a way of telling a story and a story and another story, all leading to the next version of the story, and the story before that. This author loves her characters, delights in their foibles and teases them with terrible husbands or sisters or servants. She wryly teases her rea I LOVED this book! It is the perfect long story (600 pages) of a Brahmin family, with all the twists and turns of fate and character that keep me engulfed. Most long family stories are not my cup of tea. But Viswanathan has a way of telling a story and a story and another story, all leading to the next version of the story, and the story before that. This author loves her characters, delights in their foibles and teases them with terrible husbands or sisters or servants. She wryly teases her readers too. This novel begins when the Brahmin family of a 10 year old girl journeys to consult a renowned healer and astrologer about finding a good husband for their daughter. The (young and beautiful) sage falls in love with her instantly and offers to marry her himself. This is done. But there is a potential glitch in his horoscope, indicating that he might die in his ninth year of marriage, that he reveals to the Sivakami's father before the decision is made. And, in any case, there is a good chance that the birth of their first son, if auspicious, will negate that threat. This is the beginning of Sivakami's fate as a woman, mother, widow, auntie, grandmother and so on. It takes place between the time of ox-carts and limos. Sivakami spends most of this time as a Brahmin widow; her head is shaved, her wardrobe consists of two white saris, and she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch from dawn to dusk. She is a devout, stubborn, humble, powerful woman, hidden from sight somewhere in the kitchen. As her family grows, as life continues around her, many stories abound. The characters are wonderful, the book is intoxicating. I loved it.

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