Monday, February 2, 2009

"The Toss of a Lemon"

Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright, and journalist. She was awarded first place in the 2007 Boston Review Short Story Contest.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her debut novel, The Toss of a Lemon, and reported the following:
I was surprised and gratified to see that p. 69 of my novel deals with a key event, so surprised that I checked pp. 59, 79, 89 and 99 to see whether they do, too. Page 89 is about a tangential character, but all the others deal with essential matters, reassuring me that--perhaps--I really did need over six hundred pages to tell this story. Back to 69: it describes how people are behaving after the death of my main character's husband. His cousin irritates the widow, Sivakami, with his theatricality, though he's quite sincere; the servant, Muchami, who identifies with Sivakami, has had his head shaved to match her in one of the many restrictions and humiliations she faces as a Brahmin widow in the early 20th century. Most difficult to write was the reaction of the two-year-old son, who has suffered the departure of a father who never fully loved him, and now must also endure the withdrawal of his mother, owing to those traditional strictures:

Vairum is now insatiable in his need for attention. At night, Sivakami holds him... During the day, though, from sunrise to sunset, he is not supposed to touch her. These are the new rules. When Vairum comes to her for the comfort of her lap, she must back away from him, offering explanations he doesn't accept. Finally, he gets angry and slaps out at her knee or her hand, and once, her head. This is not mere violence, it is sabotage: she must bathe again and wash her sari. From time to time, she gives in and permits him the lap, since she will have to bathe anyhow. This sometimes happens twice in a day, so that her saris haven't time to dry. Vairum gets damp, sitting in her lap and holding onto her; they both catch cold.

The defining vectors of the book are at work on this page: Sivakami is slightly aloof and isolated from her Brahmin neighbors. She is more at ease with Muchami, who is smarter and more loyal than most of her caste-mates. And though Sivakami loves her little boy fiercely, she is unable or unwilling to break with orthodoxy to protect their relationship: p. 69 shows glimmers of a future conflict of magnificent proportions.

I'm not sure much of this would come through to the scanner of random pages, though, nor whether it needs to. When I apply this test to a book, I'm mainly interested in the prose style: is it fun? It's tougher for me to judge my own work this way, since I write to amuse myself, but I think the narrator's way of talking (I should mention that although the book reads as though it's in third-person, there is in fact a character telling the story), her tongue-in-cheekness, and her sympathy for the characters are evident on this page.
Read an excerpt from The Toss of a Lemon, and learn more about the book and author at Padma Viswanathan's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue