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'Toss of a Lemon' Delves Into India's Divided Past

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Padma Viswanathan says she enjoys long, intricately plotted historical novels, so perhaps it's perfectly natural for her to write one. The first-time author interviewed her grandmother repeatedly over the course of a year to research The Toss of a Lemon. The 600-page novel plunges readers into the vicissitudes of a Tamil Brahmin family over the course of a turbulent century.

We meet the novel's heroine, Sivakami, perched on the edge of puberty, as she is about to be betrothed to an astrologer smitten by her horoscope. Not too many years later, Sivakami finds herself widowed, with two children. And although she barely leaves her house thereafter, her story encompasses an epic tale of India's caste and class systems, social mores and rebellion, and politics and superstition.

The Baltimore Sun called The Toss of a Lemon "electrifying," while Publisher's Weekly said it's "absorbing." Canada's National Post added, "There is a whole world here between two covers."

Viswanathan is a Canadian-born former librarian who found her voice as a writer while participating in social-activist theater. Now she lives in Arkansas with her poet husband. Her next novel should be published in the spring. Viswanathan cites Salman Rushdie as one of her most significant influences, and readers of both may recognize a thread of magical realism among the many exerting a pull into this enchanting work of fiction.

This reading of The Toss of a Lemon took place in October 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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