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The Henna Artist - a story set in India

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reese Bookclub Pick

Published Mar 2020; 384 pages

The Buddy Read for my sister and me is a debut novel that has been on my TBR list since I saw it show up on Reese's bookclub list. Years ago my sister dated a man from India and ever since then, we've both had an interest in stories set in India.

First Sentence: "I felt my spirits lift. I would leave the map of my life here, in Jaipur. I would leave behind a hundred thousand henna strikes."


1950s Jaipur, India. Lakshmi, a 17 year old girl, is fleeing an abusive marriage of two years and arrives in Jaipur full of dreams, ambition, and determination. With hard work she becomes the most sought after henna artist and is in huge demand for each celebration for the wealthy women of the city. She also has a way with herbs and potions and is able to help women with a variety of ills from headaches, to conception, to abortion - all very discreetly.

Suddenly, her husband shows up after 13+ years and, surprisingly, brings Lakshmi's younger sister with him. She didn't even know she HAD a sister! She shuns the husband but takes over the care of her 13 year old sister which proves much more problematic than expected. This sister is rebellious and uncooperative and creates all sorts of trouble in Lakshmi's ordered life. Troubles are resolved and a new direction presents itself to the sisters.


Both Donna and I really enjoyed this story. The first person story of Lakshmi is compelling and kept us turning the pages. Her strength of character and her pride and goal of being independent are pervasive and handled beautifully. She focuses on her goals to the exception of almost everything - sometimes to the detriment of her relationship with her sister (but that can be forgiven since she was kind of plopped in the middle of her life).

I listened to the book and the narration was delightful. The lilting accent was very understandable and I enjoyed hearing the names and occasional Hindi phrases pronounced. I have to say I was a little concerned when the story opens with the narrator saying there is a free download with all the character names and relationships. I thought, "oh no - I'm in big trouble"! However, it was totally fine. It was easy to keep the main characters straight.

I particularly loved the vivid descriptions of Jaipur and India in general. I liked learning about customs and when/why/how henna is used. The research for this novel appears to be meticulous - it really helps the story flow and every bit is believable. The end is maybe a little Hollywood, but even that can be forgiven when it's so nicely written.

This would be a fun book for a bookclub because it could be interesting to discuss the sibling relationship, the culture of India, the strong heroine, friendship, and so much more. It's also an easy introduction to India if you're interested in expanding your reading horizons (or reading Around the World, like me).

Challenges tagged;

Historical Fiction: 3/15

Mt TBR (virtual): 3/24

US Literary Escape: 3/51 - 7 bonus (other countries)

Library Love: 8/ 70+

COYER 1st semester: 13 books read

Read the World: 6/197 (India)

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