I began reviewing books in 2009. For the first time in almost fourteen years I am offering an extended critique of three volumes in one post. The Jaipur Trilogy has garnered rave reviews within the literary community, and they are well deserved. Alka Joshi’s work is a treasure, and I am officially a fan. If you’d like an extended elaboration of this endorsement, settle in for a long read below.
The Henna Artist
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.
I was completely taken in by The Henna Artist. Indian culture is quite foreign to me, yet I find it fascinating. Alka Joshi’s writing not only made the setting accessible to this reader, but she elevated my understanding of the country and the era in which the story was placed. Her descriptions were lush without being overindulgent, and the character development caused me to truly care about the players within the novel. Main protagonist Lakshmi is an impressive woman, as she has had to fend for herself for many years within a culture that presented many obstacles to success. Through her talents and ability to relate to others, she maneuvers her way through society to find favor with the royal elite and powerful alike. Even when she encounters unexpected turns along her journey, she finds ways to persevere and make something of herself. Joshi’s narrative was thoroughly unpredictable, delightful, tragic and touching in so many ways. It was a pleasure to read.
While I found The Henna Artist to be a compelling treasure, there are moments that are difficult within Lakshmi Shastri’s story. Issues surrounding the topic of abortion are raised from time to time. As someone who does not support abortion and has experienced pregnancy loss, I found some events to be heartbreaking. That said, The Henna Artist shines a light on the plight that many women faced in the 1950s and most certainly face today. My views on abortion were not changed in reading about these women, but my perspective on the subject was deepened. This arena is a complex tangle of problems and tragedy. While I firmly value the sanctity of life from the point of conception, I also believe we need to have compassion for those who see no other choice than to end their pregnancies.
In response to those who may be concerned about this difficult element in The Henna Artist, it can also be noted that the alternative of adoption is a strong theme in the narrative as well. In fact, one adoption in particular is what sustains the narrative arc of the entire trilogy until the conclusion in The Perfumist of Paris.
As the title indicates, Lakshmi is most known for her work as a henna artist, and this remains the primary focus of her career. Through her talents she is able to build a new life in Jaipur, and she also begins to fashion a new family as well. Themes of redemption, ingenuity and love are strong throughout her story, with moments of levity that shaped an unforgettable novel that I will cherish for years to come. The Henna Artist has been a rousing success for debut author Alka Joshi, and it is well deserved.
In New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi’s [The Secret Keeper of Jaipur], henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.
It’s the spring of 1969, and Lakshmi, now married to Dr. Jay Kumar, directs the Healing Garden in Shimla. Malik has finished his private school education. At twenty, he has just met a young woman named Nimmi when he leaves to apprentice at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project: a state-of-the-art cinema.
Malik soon finds that not much has changed as he navigates the Pink City of his childhood. Power and money still move seamlessly among the wealthy class, and favors flow from Jaipur’s Royal Palace, but only if certain secrets remain buried. When the cinema’s balcony tragically collapses on opening night, blame is placed where it is convenient. But Malik suspects something far darker and sets out to uncover the truth. As a former street child, he always knew to keep his own counsel; it’s a lesson that will serve him as he untangles a web of lies.
While The Henna Artist centers on the life, ambitions and relationships of Lakshmi Shastri, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur has a different feel. The tone is almost like a political or corporate thriller, with elements of mystery and subterfuge within the circles of Jaipur’s high society and government. Much attention is given to Lakshmi’s dear friend Malik, whom readers meet in The Henna Artist as a boy who is struggling to survive on the streets. In this novel he is now a young man who is coming into his own as an apprentice with the Jaipur Palace Facilities Office.
The narration alternates between Lakshmi, Malik, and a young widow named Nimmi who lives outside the city. Their lives are interconnected in different ways, each facing challenges as individuals and within their mutual relationships. Many characters from The Henna Artist make appearances, some of whom hold secrets which have dire consequences if they are revealed. Malik shows himself to be a young man of integrity, and not everyone is sympathetic to his views. This makes for riveting reading as he navigates the world of business, construction and politics.
While The Secret Keeper of Jaipur has a slightly different tone than its predecessor, it remains a highly enjoyable novel. I appreciated the alternating viewpoints of the narrators, and Alka Joshi’s prose once again drew me into the world of 20th century India. Lakshmi’s role has shifted a bit, as she spends more time as a medical healer and helping with issues that arise with Malik and Nimmi. The significant adoption that occurs in The Henna Artist has its repercussions in Lakshmi’s life as well, and she has to manage developments stemming from that. The many threads of the narrative are woven in a way that is captivating, colorful and creative. Alka Joshi showed no evidence of a sophomore slump in this second part of her sweeping trilogy.
For this third volume I am not offering the publisher’s description. There are some elements within that blurb that were unknown to me when I began to read The Perfumist of Paris, and that ignorance was to my benefit. Readers can easily go to other sources if they are eager for that content. As a general summary, I will offer a more basic description. As the title indicates, the setting for the novel is Paris, France. The year is 1974, and Lakshmi’s younger sister Radha is now a grown woman with a family of her own. Like many women of that era, she is juggling the demands of traditional marriage, motherhood and a career. She is also burdened by secrets from her past, which she has kept hidden from almost everyone. While on a business trip to India she not only finds the key to what she’s been searching for in a work assignment, but she discovers that her secrets will not be hidden for much longer. A time of reckoning has been thrust upon her, and decisions must be made.
Although mostly set in Paris, this third title in the trilogy has a tone that is similar to The Henna Artist. The plot is very character-driven and follows the actualization of a young woman who is also trying to make her way in the world. There is less subterfuge than in The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, but Radha’s secrets have significant consequences in her life. Author Alka Joshi’s writing continues to be enthralling. Fans of the Netflix program Emily in Paris will find several elements in common with this novel, which is an asset. The individuals with whom Radha interacts are distinct and well-drawn. Her French as well as Indian relationships were contrasting in many ways, and I found them to be interesting and realistic.
Although the time period is set many decades ago, I didn’t feel alienated from their issues. In some senses much has changed since the 1970s, but it remains true today that men and women alike struggle with the home-work life balance. It’s possible to “want it all” in the area of love, career and family, but there are limits to each arena. Radha pushes those limits, sometimes to their breaking points. The resolutions she finds are not always perfectly neat and tidy, but they are authentic to the character and the book series.
The Perfumist of Paris is an interesting examination of the life of a young Indian woman and the repercussions of her choices past and present. The narrative arc that began in The Henna Artist is brought to a satisfying conclusion in ways that were captivating and unpredictable. I read all three novels in short succession, picking up the second and third titles as soon as I finished the previous one. In effect, this trilogy was a single 1,100-page work for me. While my worldviews and values may differ with Joshi’s characters, nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. A Netflix series is in the works, and I am thrilled that it has been optioned for this. Alka Joshi’s work is a treasure, and I wish her continued success.
|Meeting Alka Joshi on April 1, 2023|
As an added blessing, I happened to be in Raleigh, NC on April 1st when Alka was making a local appearance at Quail Ridge Books. This also coincided with my 52nd birthday, so it was a special time indeed. I loved meeting Ms. Joshi, and she kindly listened to me as I discussed my worldviews with her. She was so approachable and generous, and it was a pleasure to be in attendance at her event. I expressed my hope for a fourth book in the series, as I envision she will be garnering a whole new audience when the Netflix show premieres. Countless others will be discovering Alka Joshi in the years to come, and I anticipate that they will clamor for more of her work. I will be among them, looking forward to experiencing her India once again.
About the Author
Born in India and raised in the U.S. since she was nine, Alka Joshi has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts. Joshi's debut novel, The Henna Artist, immediately became a NYT bestseller, a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick, was Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, & is in development as a TV series. Her second novel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (2021), is followed by The Perfumist of Paris (2023). Find her online at www.alkajoshi.com.
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