Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

Author: Padma Viswanathan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 616
Warnings: Very few, actually.
Rating: 1.5/5

This book chronicles 70 years of Brahmin family life in Tamil Nadu (one of the southernmost states in India). I almost didn't finish reading this book, most likely since the prominent characters didn't come into play until much later on because they had to reach adulthood. At about the halfway point the book stopped being a litany of who begot who and the various players started interacting, and in my estimation this book went from a 1/5 to a 1.5/5.

A lot of this book was focused on the ceremony of being Brahmin in southern India, and I was incredibly pleased not to be treated like a tourist. This meant that since I have no familiarity with any aspect of Indian culture, I also spent the first half a the book wondering what was going through everyone's head. I would not be surprised if a lot of information flew right over my head while I was trying to get my bearings. I am completely okay with this, since I didn't pick up this book to gawk at anybody or undermine their traditions. At absolute best, I am now in a better position to educate myself about Brahmin and Tamil culture, and I plan to do so in a polite and respectful way. After reading a few historical books that stomp all over indigenous cultures (I'm looking at you, Sherlock Holmes) this book's attitude (considering it was written for an English-reading audience) was a welcome respite.

Most of the plot of this book was focused on the interplay between the family members, which was primarily about getting married, having children and living happily; there was also an undercurrent of discord beyond the normal family disagreements over the country's political shift. The vertex of this conflict is between Sivakami, the conservative matriarch of the family and her vindictive son Varium. All of this drama, as it were, was understated and subtle, as family foulness usually is. My response to this was that I wanted to slowly trudge through family heartbreak, like most human beings I don't have to read about it. More than that, the book's plot was just too close to boring to appeal to me.

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