Everybody gets wet. If human progress is a body board floating on history's ocean, then the characters in "The Toss of a Lemon," the debut novel by Padma Viswanathan, are the curious surfers. Most manage to float, balancing tenuously between the future and the past; a few coast easily ahead on the tops of waves. But Sivakami, the protagonist, is fated to drown amid her ancient habits.

We meet Sivakami in 1896 in a village in India, when she is 10 years old. "She is neither short nor tall for her age," we are told, "but she will not grow much more." Through the next 50 years of her life, during which the caste system deteriorates, India achieves independence and the world breaks twice into global warfare, Sivakami does indeed remain the same. When her rituals begin to trump reality, she becomes Viswanathan's plaything, and suffers for her refusal to adapt -- much to our benefit, the author is not afraid to torture her characters a little.

Sivakami's descendants, though, defect from her traditional methods. Vairum, her son, is an entrepreneur more concerned with amassing a fortune than upholding Brahmin customs; Janaki, her granddaughter, meanders ambivalently between the past and the modern world. (She has a not-very-subtle penchant for hanging out in doorways.) At times the characters seem more like emblematic vectors -- this one pointed toward the colonialism of yesterday, this one toward tomorrow's capitalism -- than humans. Their dramatic struggles are inevitable, but predictable (and, after 600 pages, monotonous) results of the philosophies they embody.

Many of these episodes were passed down to Viswanathan from her grandmother. Fittingly, the prose has the feel of an oral narrative. The language is simple, yet precise. The author's voice is unobtrusive, and sharp enough to support touches of magical realism -- Sivakami's daughter sheds golden dust from her skin, for example -- and to make the foreign Indian landscape seem immediately familiar.

That's why it's so jarring when Viswanathan throws in an occasional narrative trick. Now and again, a sentence will appear that reminds us it's 2008. When the narrator reveals that Sivakami is enjoying marital relations even though "she is only thirteen years old," that serves to shoot us 100 years ahead of the text. Such deviations keep the reader at arm's length; one can witness the drama, but can't experience it.

Still, we are front-row viewers, and the world Viswanathan has depicted is worth seeing. The novel is ambitious in its aim to document the slow, difficult evolution of independence in India, and largely successful in its endeavor. We are left wondering what will happen as all cultures in the world continue to converge -- will a collective future become more important than singular, personal pasts? -- a mystery that the book earns, and one that haunts us well after closing the back cover.

Max Ross writes the book column "Cracking Spines" for rakemag.com. He lives in Minneapolis.