A gorgeous novel by Padma Viswanathan, an author who kindly provided a “blurb” for the cover of my own novel.
A few weeks ago, I did my first interview leading up to the launch of my novel. It should appear in the Summer issue of Montreal Review of Books.
One of the questions I was asked began by acknowledging that books about happy family situations – like the high-functioning marriage central to my novel — are scarce. I’ve thought about this a lot since the interview. I’ve tried to make a mental list of memorable, happy literary relationships. Maybe another reader could do better, but for me, it’s a short list – one full of characters who usually end up dead within the first quarter of their books. Most often, a happy relationship is a preamble for a story – a cheap tableaux meant to be quickly dismantled. Otherwise, it’s the pat-ending of a story – the trite song-and-dance finale. The interviewer who posed the question is right. Seldom does a happy relationship make up the balance of a story, especially in literary fiction.
When most readers want to know how to behave and be happy in a family, we reach for the self-help shelves of the bookstore, not the literary fiction section. I think the reasons we’re not interested in seeing happy families in fiction are fairly simple. Happy relationships are typically written as uneventful. They’re boring. Their sweetness is cloying. It’s mapped out in cliches and feels contrived.
And that’s a mistake. It’s not the relationships that are boring but the way writers approach them. Happy families come with their own difficulties and complexities – ones I find fascinating. They’re surprising, interesting and, obviously, I believe they ought to be explored in literature.
I recently came across an example of a novel that portrays a generally happy family in a way that’s both believable and compelling. It’s Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon. Set in the final decades of colonial India, spanning two world wars, and sweeping changes to the traditional Hindu way of life, the book comments on the intricacies of religion, class, and politics without the tedium of a history or the tiresomeness of a polemic.
It also presents a picture of a large, mulit-generational family that manages to function and produce healthy, happy members in spite of inevitable adversity. The central character is a matriarch, a child-bride widowed and left with two children by the age of eighteen. She manages to maneuvre within the strict limitations of her caste, her gender, and a crushing notion of fate to shield her grandchildren from the self-destruction of the family’s patriarchs. There’s an amazing irony at work in the book: the place where the matriarch seems to be weakest – her utter servitude to oppressive customs that keep her marginalized and invisible to the world outside her family – is also the focal point of her greatest strengths.
The rest of the cast of characters is large and complicated and badly flawed in places. Like any story meant to deal with realistic ups and downs of daily life, the books has its share of illnesses, untimely deaths, and family spats that drag on for years. Yet the tone of the book is not dark or dour. It’s sun-lit and warm. The book’s heart is like a real heart – one that is much more than the sum of its parts. Its warmth is at once miraculous yet credible with a bittersweetness that only comes with honesty.
I really enjoyed this book. It was strange to find myself feeling so at home in a novel set in a Brahmin household. Maybe the familiarity springs from the lines Viswanathan drops into the narrative expressing sentiments exactly like ones I’ve felt in my own family life. For instance, when she says that certain burdens only become heavier when we share them, I know just what she means. Sometimes, even in a close family, the best way to handle suffering is privately. For me, Viswanathan is not only a story-teller. She’s someone who seems to understand family in much the same way I do.
A large part of being happy in a family – or maybe in anything – is understanding and accepting the limitations of what it can make possible and forgiving and forgetting the absence of what it was never meant to provide. That’s what the women in The Toss of a Lemon do. As Viswanathan writes of them in the aftermath of a disaster, “We were not shattered.”
In writing the book, Viswanathan drew on her own family history. Maybe that’s what gives the story its organic, authentic, universally relatable feel. Reality — even an unseen, faraway reality — comes with a badge of truth.
Thanks to my family history, writing about a happy family came naturally for me. That’s what I told the reporter when she asked me if writing a good marriage was difficult. I don’t know why, but it’s my excellent fortune to have only ever lived in happy families. It may be a rare way to live but it’s real and it’s worth the work it takes to give it a voice.