In brief: Isla is a doctor in the 1930s who desperately wants to go to India to work. She didn’t intend on getting engaged first! India is nothing like she had prepared herself for, culturally and emotionally.
The good: Loved the tea descriptions.
The not-so-good: Seemed overly descriptive in places.
Why I chose it: I like tea. I like books. Thanks to Penguin for offering me a copy to put the two things together.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Setting: India and England
Rating: 6 out of 10
The Tea Gardens was a mixed book for me. Some parts of it I absolutely adored, others I had to really push through to suspend disbelief (well, it is fiction). I picked it up and put it down several times. Some days I missed it, others I didn’t. It’s a book of contrasts – the different cultures of England and India, the roles of women in the 1930s, passion versus love and acceptance versus fighting for your beliefs.
The book started off well for me. Isla is a female doctor, single and working hard in England to improve the lives of women in obstetrics. Her true desire is to go to India to work in tropical diseases, but her father is against that as he believes India and tuberculosis is what killed Isla’s mother. They’ve come to a compromise – Isla to go to India, but work in obstetrics. However, her father has one last trick up his sleeve – reintroduce Isla to her teenage crush Jove, who is now looking for a wife. I was a bit uncomfortable at this point – surely as a female doctor in a very male dominated field Isla would have developed the strength to stand up for what she wanted to do? Perhaps at heart she was willing to defer to her father’s wishes. When Isla and Jove met, it was an instalove involving a long date culminating in a proposal. Again, this was a bit weird for me – one date and you’re happy to be bonded for life? Jove also seemed a bit controlling already in what he wanted Isla to do and not do during her time in India – could Isla not see it?
Doubts aside, Isla arrives in Calcutta and turns the obstetrics ward around to improve things. She has a follower in fellow doctor Miles, a seemingly benign ladder climber and soon, an enemy in tropical diseases specialist Saxon. But amongst the sparring is an essence of respect between the pair and it’s to Saxon Isla turns to when she tries to help out a young couple. This has disastrous consequences for all involved…
Isla was a character who didn’t always sit quite right with me, as you’ve likely guessed from above. She can be quite headstrong and irrational at times but also kind of stupid. There was one line where she was looking at a wound, and says to herself, “just beginning to leak blood…or extravasate, I corrected in my mind…’. If Isla is an experienced doctor, I would think she would automatically think in medical terms. Nor would she go on to define extravasate to herself – she should automatically be speaking that language to herself and her colleagues. (I could go on about her use of the word painkiller but I’ll get off my high horse – maybe it’s just us moderns who would never say that to a co-worker). She’s a mish-mash of devotion, romance and immaturity – not really a typical woman in her thirties for me. Saxon I found much more interesting as he spoke bluntly, honestly communicating his thoughts without social niceties. (Plus, he had a good knowledge of tea).
The style of writing of The Tea Gardens wasn’t quite my cup of tea. As the previous paragraph shows, I’m not one for a ton of description unless it seems natural. I felt that some of the descriptions, particularly of the scenery, were over the top in use of adjectives for me. The story was also very well researched, but again I personally thought there was too much at times. It felt like when you’re answering an exam question but know so much more about something a bit off topic and decide to cram it in there to demonstrate your knowledge.
If you enjoy romantic historical fiction, you may well disagree with my opinion. Unfortunately, the story and I couldn’t quite make it work for each other.