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The Henna Artist: Book summary and reviews of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist

by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi X
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
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About this book

Book Summary

Escaping from an arranged and abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone from her 1950s rural village to the vibrant pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the henna artist - and confidante - most in demand 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.

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.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Lakshmi is such a strong and multifaceted character. What makes her that way? What are three things a great protagonist needs to truly stand out?
  2. Could Lakshmi have found another way to escape her abusive marriage? What do you think of the choices she made to change her circumstances?
  3. Should Lakshmi have tried to make her marriage work the second time around? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think Lakshmi has ultimately learned about herself and about her place in the world by the end of the novel?
  5. What do you see as the basic similarities and differences between Lakshmi and the Maharanis she works for? Who has more freedom? Who has more advantages?
  6. Lakshmi and Malik are very close, even though she is Hindu and he is Muslim. What ...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Henna Artist:

At one point early in the novel, Lakshmi is thinking about karma. Do you believe in karma? Why or why not?
I do believe in Karma and that the energy you put forth, both bad or good, will come back to you as reward or punishment. I have lived long enough to have seen how effectively Karma does it's work, which is does very well. - evelyng

At one point, Lakshmi says that the one thing she hates most is sympathy. Why do you think that is? Is Lakshmi being too proud in this case?
I dont think many of us like sympathy...there is a difference in compassion and sympathy.. feeling bad for someones situation and wanting to help them is one thing, but feeling sorry for them and not thinking they are strong enough to get themselves ... - beckys

Business women, Friend, or Both?
I think all three. When one does a personal service such as hairdressing, massage or even being a tattoo artist you get to know your client. I don’t have a tattoo but having something put on your body that will last a lifetime must require a great ... - pennyp

Could Lakshmi have found another way to escape her abusive marriage? What do you think of the choices she made to change her circumstances?
As other readers have said, given the culture of her country and her village, I don’t believe she had much choice. Her parents were not in a position to assist her and she could not bring herself to kill her husband. She chose to escape despite the ... - Elizabeth Marie

Do you relate to Lakshmi?
Yes. Lakshmi left her abusive husband. I did the same, albeit with four children in tow. She eventually set herself up as a henna artist. I had several iterations in eight years, taking advantage of opportunities as they came along, incorporating ... - thereser

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Joshi's evocative descriptions capture India's sensory ambience (horse-drawn tongas, pungent cooking fires and incense, and colorful saris), drawing readers deep into her moving story. Joshi masterfully balances a yearning for self-discovery with the need for familial love." - Publishers Weekly

"Fantastic, so evocative and beautiful and full of life and light.... The Henna Artist is detailed and sumptuous, vivid in its characters and deeply satisfying in its storytelling." - Leah Franqui, author of America for Beginners

"The Henna Artist is a bold, ambitious, beautifully written novel about India in the decade after independence, and about class, identity, love and deceit. The broad cast of characters will etchthemselves into your psyche." - Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me

"Alka Joshi's superb first novel is unforgettable.... Read this book slowly and savor it: Every page is rich with intricate pleasures for both the mind and the heart." - Anita Amirrezvani, author of The Blood of Flowers

"Like a brilliant, magical kaleidoscope, bursting with color, The Henna Artist kept me riveted from start to finish." - Lauren Belfer, NYT Bestselling author of After the Fire and City of Light

"Everything a great novel needs is here: The protagonist balancing impossible burdens with her bountiful talents; the many other characters, each so colorful and complex, each necessary to the intricate and delicate plot, Such a satisfying novel!" - Sandra Scofield, author of The Last Draft

"Alka Joshi's debut novel is a richly drawn design of love and the many hungers that drive human beings...a lush, gorgeous journey that any reader will be sorry to see end." - Erin McGraw, author of The Good Life and The Seamstress of Hollywood

"Romantic, old-time Rajasthan leaps to life in the skilled hands of Alka Joshi. The Henna Artist brims over with richly drawn customs, locations, and characters. I can hardly wait for Alka Joshi's next masterpiece." - Sujata Massey, internationally bestselling author of The Satapur Moonstone and The Widows of Malabar Hill

"The Henna Artist is a delicious, old-fashioned tale about timeless heartaches. There's something elemental and mythic about Lakshmi and her knowledge of spices, roots, oils, and barks that drew me into the kind of world I gladly lived in when reading fairy tales as a child, a place inhabited by powerful queens, talking birds, magical drinks, orphans, sad princesses, clever servants, and dangerous poisons. I'm in awe of Joshi's storytelling and a little jealous of the character who winds up with the talking bird. 'Namaste!' as he says. 'Bonjour! Welcome!'" - Laura McNeal, author of The Practice House

The information about The Henna Artist shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review

Djcminor

A Mesmerizing Read
I received a copy of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi from Bookbrowse.com. This review reflects my own thoughts and opinions without bias for having received the free book. The Henna Artist is Joshi’s first novel. Joshi runs an advertising and marketing firm. Born in India and raised in the US, Joshi has lived in India, France, Italy, and the US. On her Web site, Joshi focuses on her advertising and marketing abilities, but The Henna Artist is also featured.
When I began reading about Lakshmi, a woman of thirty, who is a renowned henna artist in Jaipur, I could hardly put the book down. Lakshmi’s father had been a school teacher, but he fought for freedom from the British and was demoted to a tiny village and had to live with his family on a reduced salary. His response to the shame was alcohol.
At fifteen, Lakshmi finds her mother has accepted a marriage proposal to Hari Shastri. Although Lakshmi begs her mother to allow her to continue to live at home and find a job, her mother will not relent. Lakshmi marries Hari and moves into the house with Hari and his mother. Lakshmi’s mother-in-law, teaches Lakshmi how to gather and use herbal medicines including herbs that will help women conceive and other herbs which help women abort an unwanted pregnancy.
Often, the desire to end the pregnancy occurs because the women are too poor to feed the children they have much less another one. Lakshmi becomes quite skilled by working with her mother-in-law. Hari, Lakshmi’s husband turns out to be much less than kind, unlike his mother. He beats Lakshmi and becomes more and more disappointed when she does not bear him a son.
Finally, Lakshmi takes money she knows her mother-in-law has put aside and runs away. At first, she works with prostitutes, giving them potions to abort children and to cure disease. Samir Singh, a wealthy man from Jaipur, notices her and takes her to Jaipur, helping her set up a more legitimate business of drawing intricate henna designs on wealthy women including his wife, Parvati.
Lakshmi, a true artist, grinds her own henna paste. She also adds delicious treats to take to the ladies as she works on their henna designs. Steadily, she builds up her clientele until she meets many wealthy and influential women and their daughters. They trust Lakshmi and admire the designs she creates.
Lakshmi also uses her herbs to help women conceive when they long for an heir. The oils, lotions, and potions all help the women to overcome depression, illness, and barrenness. On the other side of the coin, she also continues to supply sachets of a tea that will cause a miscarriage. Samir discreetly requests these sachets for his mistresses and for his friends’ mistresses.

Lakshmi is having a home built with her own designs in the intricate tile floor. She dreams of bringing her parents to live with her so she can care for them and make up for running away. Instead of her parents, though, Lakshmi’s sister Radha, thirteen, appears. Radha was born the year Lakshmi ran away, so Lakshmi has never known about her sister.
Radha tells Lakshmi both their parents are dead. Lakshmi takes Radha in to care for her and teach her. Unfortunately, both Lakshmi and Radha get caught up in events that cause all of Lakshmi’s plans to fall apart. Yes, she and Radha move into the home Lakshmi has so lovingly designed in hopes of caring for her parents as they age. She has switched that allegiance to her sister, but forces outside Lakshmi’s control conspire to make the plans fail.
Because Lakshmi helps Joyce Harris, a British woman, with an abortion, Lakshmi meets Dr. Jay Kumar. Mrs. Harris fears the baby is not her husband’s but possibly an Indian man’s. She cannot take the chance of having a brown baby; she lies to Lakshmi about how far along she is. The sachets for tea that Lakshmi leaves with Mrs. Harris then cause Mrs. Harris to become very ill since she was more than four months along in the pregnancy.
Dr. Kumar is very impressed with Lakshmi’s talents and her herbal medicines. This meeting and the saving of Joyce Harris’s life create a strong impression on Dr. Kumar who then figures as an important ally in Lakshmi’s life.
Joshi makes the book come alive with the Indian traditions and the careful steps Lakshmi must always take to ensure that she maintains her place. She cannot be abrupt or haughty or act in any way that will displease the wealthy, privileged women she serves. She must bite her tongue and bow in order to keep them making appointments with her. When gossip makes its way around the ladies’ circle, Lakshmi is devastated and her business all but ruined.
At this point, another meeting with Dr. Kumar will be advantageous to Lakshmi and Radha and not in a romantic sense.
The other character I must describe is Malik, a young boy of indeterminate age, possibly eight when we first meet him. At least, he tells the Maharani Indira, the maharaja’s stepmother, “I prefer to be eight.” He is a wise young man with skills far above his age and education. Lakshmi had discovered him some time after she arrived in Jaipur. He becomes her right-hand man. I like Malik; he is a true survivor and an entrepreneur just as much as Lakshmi is.

Travelady

A very engaging read
The Henna Artist has all the ingredients I look for in a great book: a strong (female) protagonist facing a seemingly insurmountable task who manages to survive admirably. To be honest, I knew very little about the culture/caste system in India. One will learn a lot about about this by reading this book.

I was immediately engaged by the characters. I wanted to know more about their lives and situations right from the beginning. I have often puzzled over arranged marriages. I have never been able to imagine myself in a culture where your future spouse is arranged by your parents. As former high school teacher when my classes were reading Romeo and Juliet, I used to ask my students if they could imagine the spouse their parents would select for them. Every time I asked the question was met with groans and generalized expressions of nausea. In all cases, my students thought their parents would choose the least eligible candidate as far as their personal happiness was concerned.

I finished reading The Henna Artist within two days of receiving it, but I hesitated writing the review to be sure I gave it the justice it deserved. Simply speaking, I loved it and was very sorry to see it end. I am looking forward to participating in the discussion because I am interested in other people's viewpoint on some of the plot turns. I will not mention those here however because they definitely would be "spoilers" for those who have not yet read the book.

My single criticism revolves around the inclusion of many Hindi words and phrases. Many (though not all) are included in an index in the back of the book. I found it very frustrating to constantly look up meanings. It severely disrupted the continuity of the novel. About half way through the book, I gave this up and tried to figure out from context. I think this would be a better book if this was remedied in an edit. However, I loved learning about India and its culture, and all the henna art stuff. It was a totally enjoyable new immersion.

Christine

Excellent Book
I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of this book through BookBrowse and the publisher. Thank you. I will comment during the discussion when it opens up. A perfect read!

Kimberly Caipa

The Henna Artist
Beautifully detailed, the journey of Lakshmi, The Henna Artist transports the reader into 1950’s India, engaging all of your senses. When Lakshmi escapes an abusive husband from an arranged marriage she uses her strength, wisdom and knowledge of herbal remedies to build an intricately woven life with the Indian elite as a henna artist. I struggled not to rush through this page turning adventure as to savor it like one of Lakshmi’s treats with a warm cup of chai tea.

Jayne Dough

The Henna Artist; a compelling new novel by a new author!
I loved this novel for the compelling characters and delightful storytelling. It took me thousands of miles away to a place I’ve never been but that I could see, hear, taste and smell so clearly! I was sorry to see it end. I just wanted to live in that world.

Lakshmi is someone I wish I knew. I felt she would help me solve anything that was troubling me. She would listen and paint henna on me and tell me everything was going to be okay. I just loved the character and her work with the “ladies” of Jaipur.

I didn’t know anything about henna when I started reading this book. Had not idea that the art was thousands of years old, that it heals, that it’s impermanent, unlike tattoos. Loved learning all that stuff and way it’s woven into the story of a henna artist who is making a life for herself outside of cultural boundaries. If you like learning about ages-old crafts and natural rituals and traditions, you’ll love this book

AJ Bunuan

Captivating
From the first few pages of the Henna Artist I knew at once that Alka Joshi had a true gift as a writer. She brought a part of the world unknown to me fully alive.

I sped through the pages eager to follow Lakshmi's efforts in becoming a woman of independence and self sufficiency.

The Henna Artist is a brilliant first novel from a writer whom I shall look forward to reading further captivating stories.

...2 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Alka Joshi Author Biography

Alka Joshi was born in India and raised in the U.S. since the age of nine. She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts and runs an advertising and marketing agency. She has lived in France and Italy and currently lives in Pacific Grove, California, with her husband. The Henna Artist is her first novel.

Instagram: @thealkajoshi
Facebook: alkajoshi2019
Twitter: @alkajoshi

Author Interview
Link to Alka Joshi's Website

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