Editorial note: I received a copy of The Henna Artist in exchange for a review.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is a beautifully written novel about freedom and independence.
I’m really glad that Reese Witherspoon picked The Henna Artist as her book club pick. It’s no secret that any book Reese selects immediately goes to the bestseller list. I so respect the fact that she doesn’t choose the same authors with similar stories. She really tries to select books that feature authors from all kinds of backgrounds with unique stories.
The Henna Artist is a story told with such passion. And in the author’s note, Alka said she wrote this novel for her mother and reimagined her existence as the main character who creates a life for her own. This is quite the vivid story and you’ll learn a lot too, especially about India’s culture in the 1950s, which was an interesting time period for the country.
Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel.
Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…
Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does.
Lakshmi is one of the most engaging protagonist that I’ve read in quite some time. You really feel her yearn and desire to truly be free. She escaped an abusive marriage and now works as both a henna artist as well as providing tea sachets to women for a host of reasons. But what she’s really working for is the ability to own a house that to her, really symbolizes freedom. But of course, she experiences much conflict along the way.
Her relationship with her sister Radha is complex. First, she never knew Radha existed and then all of a sudden, she has a sister who for sure has a mind of her own. Radha’s had a very tough upbringing and is quite scarred. While only 13, she’s mature beyond her years.
Lakshmi is suddenly thrust into a position of being an older sister and almost a parental figure to Radha, while at the same time, she’s trying to keep both of her businesses afloat. But Radha is not going to make things easy for her and their dynamic takes plenty of turns.
India in the ’50s
The ’50s is such an interesting time to set the story in—the entire world is still recovering from WWII but also moving more to a modern society. And India is not exempt from that. This story takes place after India gained independence from Britain. And the country is very much trying to find a balance between tradition and a push for more modern behavior. But there’s still much of the old school thinking and that someone independent like Lakshmi brings much suspicion among the other women.
I loved the details about the making of henna, which sounds quite complex, to all the food descriptions and other culture. You truly feel like you’re transported back to 1950s pink city of Jaipur. I find myself Googling much about the city and the culture as I read this book. At the end of the story, the author provides details on the story of henna, Radha’s recipe for henna paste, the caste system in India, and food recipes too. Really think that’s such an educational and also neat touch!
I highly recommend you check out the The Henna Artist. You really will learn so much and also root for Lakshmi every step of her journey. Check out my book club questions here.