Gwen was not at all prepared for life on her new husband’s tea plantation in the highlands of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Her loving veteran husband, on his home turf, is taciturn, secretive, and far too willing to grant the wishes of his sister and former lover. The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries, is the story of a young woman who has to learn to navigate the complicated family history she has landed in the middle of and find a measure of happiness for herself.
In the first third of The Tea Planter’s Wife, Gwen strongly reminded me of the second Mrs. de Winter, from Rebecca, though her story is much less sinister than that poor girl’s. Gwen’s husband is a widower, but no one will talk about Caroline or how she died. Still, Caroline’s memory casts a long shadow over Laurence and Gwen’s marriage. There is also a big difference in the newlyweds’ ages. Laurence pushes aside many of Gwen’s concerns, especially ones that have to do with how he interacts with his former lover. (There’s too much flirting and too many business deals for Gwen’s liking.) Gwen struggles, alone, to find a place for herself.
Events turn when Gwen gives birth to twins. One, a boy, is white, but the other, a daughter, has dark skin. Gwen is terrified that someone took advantage of her the night she got blackout drunk at a party (even though the supposed parentage of her twins is biologically dubious). So Gwen does the terrible thing she feels she must in the deeply racist white society of Ceylon. Gwen has her servant take the girl away to be raised with a Sinhala family. Now that Gwen has her own secret, she fits in much better with her new family.
The Tea Planter’s Wife runs from 1925 to 1934. Over those years, Gwen slowly pieces together the family’s history while concealing her guilt and agony over her abandoned daughter. On the surface, the Hooper family seem like some of Ceylon’s leading lights. But underneath, the family is severely dysfunctional. I enjoyed the ethical complexity of the family; Gwen is no innocent like the second Mrs. de Winter and I found her much more interesting (though hardly sympathetic for it). The flaw in this book is that the ending fizzles with too-quick resolutions of the major plot threads.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.