The Tea Gardens by Fiona McIntosh: Perfect escapist treat for all fans of romance and drama - book review -
Flee the winter chill and lose yourself in the heat and passions of 1930s India in the company of a young female doctor determined to set up a midwifery clinic for the women of Calcutta.
Fiona McIntosh, who moved from Brighton to Australia when she was in her teens, sweeps us into the torrid life of a young and pioneering gynaecologist whose ambitions take her to the heart of a complex and compelling new world where she will be forced to make an impossible choice.
Love really does blossom in the most unexpected ways, and in the most unexpected places, in this moving, epic story which sees McIntosh – a writer noted for her breathtaking authenticity and immaculate research – on a thrilling journey from windswept England to sweltering Calcutta slums, and onwards to drama in the foothills of the Himalayas.
In London in late 1932, Dr Isla Fenwick has a life that most modern women of her time might envy. Her career as a gynaecologist and obstetrician gives her status and her comfortable, middle-class background gives her more personal freedom than many could dream of.
Even though she will soon be thirty, Isla has little interest in marriage… until her childhood crush, Jovian (Jove) Mandeville, reappears in her life with a marriage proposal. A respected MP and twelve years older than herself, Jove is charming, kind and funny, and she agrees to marry him on one condition.
Years ago, she promised her dying mother that one day she would help to eradicate disease in India, the place where her medic mother caught tuberculosis and which subsequently led to her premature death.
Jove shares Isla’s interest in India and gives his blessing for her to sail to Calcutta to set up a midwifery clinic and then return for their wedding within the year. But she also leaves England with another promise ringing in her ears… she has pledged to her fearful father that she will not seek out the sick and needy who are suffering from tuberculosis.
What Isla can’t anticipate is how India will test all those qualities of perseverance, endurance and determination that she relies upon, whilst challenging her professionalism and her loyalties.
But it is Isla’s fateful meeting with the enigmatic, brilliant but forthright Professor Saxon Vickery, a world expert in tropical medicine, that will call into question what she trusts most about herself.
And when Isla and Saxon travel to the Himalayas for a stay on a tea plantation outside Darjeeling, Isla will have to make the most important choice of her life. And at the roof of the world – where heaven and earth collide – she will be asked to pay the ultimate price for her passions.
Life, love and death in colonial India in the Thirties springs to vivid life in this enthralling, beautifully crafted tale which explores the role of medicine and midwifery in improving the lives of women at a time when childbirth and disease posed a deadly threat.
The indomitable, quick-thinking Isla has her work cut out from her first day on the wards at the teeming Calcutta hospital where she will constantly battle expectations, long-held traditions and beliefs, and the constraints of a male-dominated world.
Under pressure from the pledges she made to both her father and her fiancé Jove, Isla must negotiate not just her work as a busy doctor but also the conflicts that are battling in her heart and her mind.
Brimming with powerful emotions, stunning locations, fascinating real history, and with a delicious, traditional recipe for almond, sweet cherry and Darjeeling tea cake to tickle the taste buds, The Tea Gardens is the perfect escapist treat for all fans of romance and drama.
(Arrow, paperback, £6.99)