13 June 2011

Review: The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

In 1947, Evie Mitchell's husband, Martin, had survived World War II in body but not in mind. When he had the chance to leave their native Chicago to document the last days of the British Raj and the partitioning of India, Evie thought the new environment would be a fresh start to their marriage.

Once she has settled in to their rented bungalow, loneliness overcomes Evie, who has few people to talk to besides her five-year-old son. She is unused to servants and begins to feel as if she were losing control of her own life. The turning point comes on the day she finds a cache of letters hidden in the house.

The letters were written by two British Victorian women--Adela and Felicity--who lived in that same bungalow in the 1850s. Evie becomes obsessed with learning more about these young women, and her research exposes her to many sides of her adopted village, including the inner sanctum of the British social club and the noisy and dangerous streets of the local market. The more Evie focuses on Adela and Felicity, the more she falls in love with India and less tolerant she becomes of Martin. While discovering the hard choices made by the two nineteenth-century women, Evie faces some life-altering choices of her own.

Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree transports readers to the colors, smells, and accents of British-ruled India. Set in two politically turbulent times--the eve of Indian independence and the Sepoy uprising a century earlier--the novel explores multiple aspects of change and freedom.

On the national level, Evie was unprepared for the widespread servitude of colonial India and the outright prejudices of the British ex-patriots. But she is equally shocked at the seemingly unbridgeable divisions within Indian society itself as it prepares for independence and partitioning. As well, Adela and Felicity, in 1857, are no less affected by the utter disrespect British officers had of Muslim and Hindu beliefs, which pushed their soldiers to revolt.

The Sandalwood Tree also explores the changing roles and rights of women. In Victorian England, women were still very much repressed, but by moving to the colonies--whether by choice (like Felicity) or under duress (like Adela)--women could gain some freedoms, including the handling of their own money until marriage. The 1940s, especially in the United States, saw the very beginnings of the feminist movement to come.

At the heart of the novel, though, is the story of how India, despite its own revolutions and restrictions, helped three women living a century apart find the strength to begin to unshackle themselves of others' expectations and embrace whatever joy and freedom they could find.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Tantor Audio, 11 hr, 23 min), read by Justine Eyre. Eyre's subtle and respectful accents enhance the Indian setting of the novel. Eyre brings understated emotion to the reading, guiding listeners without getting in their way.

Give it to me quickly: The colors, smells, and sounds of northern India underlie the story of three women, living almost a century apart, who struggle to find a balance between individual freedom and the promise of love with the expectations of family and society.

Published by Simon & Schuster / Atria, 2011
ISBN-13: 9781416590590
YTD: 55
Source: review (see review policy).
Rating: B+ (based on audio production)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Swapna 6/13/11, 9:27 AM  

I'm so glad you enjoyed this one as well. I liked a lot of the same things about it - the overall story of India paired with the smaller, quieter story of two women learning to be free. It was well done!

Julie P. 6/13/11, 9:56 AM  

This is almost on top of my TBR pile! Sounds wonderful.

Zibilee 6/13/11, 11:25 AM  

I have this book up for review very soon, and I am looking forward to it. I love books that are set in India, and you make this one sound like it's a very lush and entertaining read. Thanks for the great review!

bermudaonion 6/13/11, 1:29 PM  

This sounds really good. I love books set in other cultures and have a feeling I'll love this one.

Nise' 6/13/11, 1:52 PM  

Hmmm, I had planned on reading this book, but now that I know Justine Eyre narrated, I'll be listening!

Charlie 6/13/11, 2:29 PM  

I loved this book, there was so much to take away from it and the social history was at once very positive (women's freedom) and very negative (Partition).

Heather 6/13/11, 2:31 PM  

this sounds very good. Glad I decided to check out your review.

Meg @ A Bookish Affair 6/13/11, 3:47 PM  

I definitely want to read this one!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) 6/13/11, 4:30 PM  

I haven't come across this one, yet, but it looks well loved. I've been surprised to find myself really into Victorian stories, lately. This one sounds like a summer read for my bag for sure.

Robin M 6/13/11, 9:54 PM  

I loved this one as well. Really absorbed me and took me to India. She's quite a writer.

Darlene 6/13/11, 11:38 PM  

Wonderful review. I loved this book as well. Elle Newmark has such a way with transporting readers right into her stories. I really enjoyed how she wove these women's stories together over time.

Amused 6/14/11, 12:03 AM  

I absolutely loved this book so I am glad to see you enjoyed the audio. I might have to give it a try just to see if it gives the book another perspective.

Anonymous,  6/14/11, 4:31 AM  

This sounds really good. I love books with a good sense of place. hall I put it on my wishlist? Ok, I will! :-)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 6/14/11, 7:13 AM  

The audio version appeals to me. I love what you had to say about this one. Nice review.

Marie Cloutier 6/14/11, 8:53 AM  

this sounds like one i'd like, and i love your description of the audio's narrator- makes it sound very appealing :-)

Kaye 6/14/11, 8:54 AM  

Another big fan of the book here. I was transported to India mentally and emotionally while reading. Newmark did a terrific job with this one.

Aisle B 6/14/11, 4:52 PM  

I'm am so adding this one to my buy list. I think I'll go for the actual book since I tend to be a trigger finger if the person is a slow narrator... my bad ;)

Unknown 6/15/11, 5:42 PM  

Evie is an intriguing woman and I am interested to know what she discovers in the histories of Adela and Felicity that causes her to fall in love with India and out of love with her husband. I've read a few books set in India or with characters from India and have really enjoyed them. But I like that this one is set in the past and imerses the reader in British-ruled India. This book is getting a spot on my tbr list!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 7/3/11, 9:52 AM  

Sounds like a winner. I have yet to read anything by this author, but her books always sound fantastic.

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