Although I’ve done a rubbish job of keeping the list on this actual blog updated, the paper list in my bedside locker is proceeding admirably. The Tea Planter’s Wife was a NetGalley email which caught my interest, so I requested it, and started reading a few days later. I think it’s number 71 on the list, but at any rate, it’s the first book I read in August of 2015, and I’m glad I did. A little bit historical fiction, a little bit human drama, a big bit beautiful, it kept me up all night reading until I found out how the story of Gwen and Laurence would resolve.
Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper is newly married to a rich and charming widower, eager to join him on his tea plantation, determined to be the perfect wife and mother. But life in Ceylon is not what Gwen expected. The plantation workers are resentful, the neighbours treacherous. And there are clues to the past – a dusty trunk of dresses, an overgrown gravestone in the grounds – that her husband refuses to discuss. Just as Gwen finds her feet, disaster strikes. She faces a terrible choice, hiding the truth from almost everyone, but a secret this big can’t stay buried forever . . .
I really enjoyed this historical fiction novel, set in 1920s and 30s Ceylon (which is now Sri Lanka). I don’t know a whole lot about tea production, racial tensions, independence, or the British Empire, but I really felt like Jefferies did a good job of sweeping the reader into the world which young Gwen Hooper finds herself in, following her marriage to the charming widower Laurence Hooper, owner of Hooper’s Tea Plantation.
The characters in this book were varied and engaging, all bogged down in the niceties and etiquette of the times, of the way things were done, and British propriety. This all combines with the young and naive Gwen to create a story which spans the first decade of her married life, and draws you in to empathise with her.
There isn’t too much I can say about this story without major spoilers, which makes it a little bit hard to write about – it’s no fun to spoil stories for others. I will say, though, that while I predicted some of the twists in this book, others were totally unexpected, and the resolution, while beautiful, was also somewhat tragic.
I really enjoyed Gwen as a character, and felt that she developed from a feisty nineteen year old to a mature and capable young woman over the course of the book. She deals with a lot in the ten years that we see her, and makes some tough choices, but retains the humanity which makes her such a compelling protagonist.
Although this novel is mainly about Gwen, and her marriage, the supporting characters are all interesting in their own right, although they flit in and out of the story only as needed, and we never really see too much of them. Naveena, in particular, the ayah, I would have liked to know more about, as well as Verity, Gwen’s sister-in-law. It seemed to me at times that they were drawn a little thinly, and really only came into their own where it was necessary to the story. I can understand that having too many characters with too much to do is often a weakness of the story, but the only person in this book who felt like they were really developed was Gwen – even Laurence, her husband, felt at times like a cardboard cutout of a widower trying to love his second wife. There were flashes of real depth at times, but not as often as I would have liked.
While the overall feel of this book really appealed to me, certain aspects of it were so far-fetched as to be totally unbelievable. The author’s notes at the end do explain some of her choices, and of course they were essential for the progression of the story, but there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required to really enjoy the book.
There are certainly many positives to this book – the imagery is rich, Gwen is a lovely character, I really enjoyed learning a little bit about Ceylon, and the human interest aspect of the story is really interesting, too. However, it was just a little bit thinly drawn, a little unbelievable for me, and so it remains a solid ‘good, but not great’.
Similar in tone, although this could be regarded as a spoiler of sorts, I guess, would be The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards.