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THE TOSS OF A LEMON by Padma Viswanathan. Harcourt. Hardcover. 619 pages. $26.

Padma Viswanathan was inspired by her own family history, specifically the stories told to her by her grandmother, to write the saga of a Brahmin family. Her novel, The Toss of a Lemon, presents a window into the world of Brahmanism and documents the vagaries of family life in the context of an India evolving both socially and politically.

The story begins in the state of Tamil Nadu, as India moves toward independence and out from under oppressive British rule. It focuses on the unfortunate Sivakami, who is married as child to an older man with whom her family first consults to have her astrological charts read.  The astrologer and soon-to-be husband foresees that when she bears children, a death shall occur. The prediction haunts Sivakami, and Viswanathan’s scenes unfold artfully, building great momentum.

When Sivakami’s first child, a daughter named Thangam, is born, the period passes without the dreaded prediction coming to pass. It is not so when her son, Vairum, is born; Sivakami finds herself a widow at 18 with two young children to care for. No matter how many times the reader hears the strict rules governing Brahmin widows of the time, the details are still cringe-worthy. Most, if not all, widows must have accepted their fate without protest, but Viswanathan creates a powerful response in Sivakami. The young widow rails against her fate, even as she has her head shaved and is made to wear the widow’s white. She is segregated from all whom she has known and loved and is even deprived of the human touch. Despite her widow’s status, she has her son, Vairum, educated—a decision that will have immense repercussions as time goes on.

Viswanathan brilliantly contrasts the life of the childless Vairum with that of his sister, the beautiful Thangam, who finds herself mired in the traditions of the time. She is married to a miserly civil servant, with whom she has 10 children, before the life, both literally and figuratively, drains out of her. Vairum goes on to embrace a more modern India, and rejects the rigid class system that dictated his mother’s and sister’s lives.

The Toss of a Lemon is both a chronicle of family life amidst a changing society and literary witness to a nation on the cusp of statehood. The novel ably portrays the ways in which our lives, like those of Vairum and Thangam, are subject to “the toss of a lemon,” leaving either misery or happiness in their wake.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.