October 16, 2016

The Tea Planter's Wife - Dinah Jefferies

Crown Publishing, August 27, 2016.

Three Stars

Gwen is only nineteen when she marries older widower Laurence and moves from England to his tea plantation in Ceylon. She hopes for a life of quiet domesticity, but she gets much more. Amidst the workers’ unrest and the mysteries of Laurence’s past, Gwen quickly becomes uncertain about her choice to move far away from everything she has ever known.

On the ship to Ceylon, Gwen meets an Indian man named Savi, who expresses surprising animosity towards her new husband. There are hints of a love triangle to come, but instead Savi infiltrates Gwen’s life in unexpected ways. As a painter of portraits, he shared an intimacy with Laurence’s first wife, and he seems to know much more than he is willing to say. Meanwhile, Laurence doesn’t speak of his past at all, and it is only a dusty trunk of dresses, an abandoned nursery and two overgrown graves that remind Gwen of her predecessor’s existence.

Gwen has doubts about her husband almost immediately, but he seems to be a kind and gentle man, and they soon try to start a family. However, when Gwen gives birth, disaster strikes in an unexpected way, and her uninformed decision changes the lives of everyone around her. In a modern context, it is impossible to sympathize with Gwen’s choice, but her naivety makes the situation plausible.

This novel moves at a slow pace, and even its most dramatic incidents aren’t all that exciting or surprising. The characters are set in their ways, and don’t seem to grow or change throughout the book. Even the conflict between characters, such as Gwen and her sister-in-law Verity, is anticlimactic and could have been developed much further. I was not able to get emotionally invested in these mostly unlikeable characters, and it was difficult to sympathize or even fully comprehend their decisions.

The setting is lush and gorgeous, with interesting historical details, but I wished for more depth in regards to the political situation. The conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese is critical to the story, yet their perspectives are treated superficially. With all of the issues this novel presents, such as worker rebellions, issues of race and class, and the economic crash of the 1920s, I think there was just too much going on to fully explore everything. I enjoyed the gothic elements – the glamorous mansion and mysteriously deceased wife were reminiscent of Rebecca – but in the end Gwen’s story was troubling, sad, and difficult to read.

I received this novel from Crown Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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