Book: The Tea Rose
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Fiction/19th Century/Romance
Summary: East London, 1888 - a city apart. A place of shadow and light where thieves, whores, and dreamers mingle, where children play in the cobbled streets by day and a killer stalks at night, where bright hopes meet the darkest truths. Here, by the whispering waters of the Thames, Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, hopes to own a shop one day, together with her lifelong love, Joe Bristow, a costermonger's son. With nothing but their faith in each other to spur them on, Fiona and Joe struggle, save, and sacrifice to achieve their dreams.
But Fiona's life is shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man take from her nearly everything - and everyone - she holds dear. Fearing her own death, she is forced to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit propels her rise from a modest West Side shop front to the top of Manhattan's tea trade. But Fiona's old ghosts do not rest quietly, and to silence them, she must venture back to the London of her childhood, where a deadly confrontation with her past becomes the key to her future. - St. Martin's Griffin, 2002.
This book is heavy - not just literally; the book caps at 544 pages for the whole story and that's a lot of paper - but figuratively as well. Once I got a third of the way through the book, I got curious and decided to skim over some reviews, obviously trying to avoid spoilers. A bunch of reviews I found said that this book was very soap opera-ish, but a good kind of soap opera. At the time, I thought 'Wait a second, that's not true. Yeah a lot happens to the heroine, but I wouldn't say it's the level of a soap opera.' But then I actually finished the book and now I can only say that they were completely right. This book is a paper soap opera. Whether it was a good one is debatable.
As always this review will be spoiler free.
When I first finished the first third of the novel, I thought this book was the British version of Gone with the Wind - a girl loses everything she holds dear and vows to survive no matter what, her father gives her advice that she quotes throughout the novel (instead of Tara, it's about taking yourself to the undertaker if you give up your dreams 'cause you might as well be dead), and the girl herself looks like Scarlett O'Hara.
Now, I feel that Fiona is Scarlett O'Hara without the faults and the gentry class background. Another review I had read said that Fiona is just shy of being a Mary Sue. I disagree. Fiona is a Mary Sue. She has absolutely no flaws. Some might say she's naive, reckless, and headstrong, but none of these traits are presented as failings. They're meant to be endearing.
At least a good half paragraph is used to describe her beauty whenever it's from the point of view of another person. When she's in America, she manages to snag a wealthy industrialist who falls in love with her at first sight. He takes her out to dinner and guess what? All of the men wonder who she is and where she came from and the women suddenly feel overdressed and ugly compared to Fiona's simple dress that enhances her gorgeous features. I was mentally gagging. Sorry honey, not even simple dresses could hide your most likely really yellow [and probably rotting] teeth and lice-infested hair. Smooth, milky skin? Girl, you only take a bath once a week. You're lucky flea bites don't leave permanent marks, but I'm sure you have a bunch.
Hell, there's even a line in the third act where she publicly confronts the man who ruined her where, I kid you not, it says that "the newspaper that day would later say she looked like a dark, avenging angel". I rolled my eyes so hard I'm surprised they didn't roll to the back of my head.
That's not to say the rest of the characters aren't likeable. I liked Joe, Fiona's family, Nicholas, and basically anyone who had a three-dimensional personality. I think that's part of the reason why I wasn't turned off immediately by Fiona's blinding perfection. The first act focuses on so many other people besides Fiona that I didn't notice it until the focus become solely on Fiona. But once my eyes were opened to it, I couldn't escape it.
I'm sure Jennifer Donnelly did her basic research about the time period - but it seems to me that she threw away reality for the sake of fictional fantasy. I'm not saying this is a total fault and it must be corrected - it's fiction, you're entitled to do whatever you want, but when you're marketing it as historical fiction, then, well, maybe you should keep at least some of the realistic societal rules so it doesn't look quite so fairy-tale-ish.
The writing is easy enough to read and it really didn't take all that long to read it. The plot is basically Gone with the Wind with the feeling of an epic, but not quite the satisfaction of it all since Fiona is, at her core, the same person she was at the beginning of the story.
If you want a book to last a while and enjoy the trashiness of it without it being too serious, The Tea Rose is for you.
Overall, I give The Tea Rose a B.
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Thanks for reading!