Book Review: "The Tea Rose" by Jennifer Donnelly
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, a bright and defiant young woman dares to dream of a life beyond tumbledown wharves, gaslit alleys, and the grim and crumbling dwellings of the poor.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 dreams are shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man take from her nearly everything-and everyone-she holds dear. Fearing her own death at the dark man's hands, she is forced to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit-and the ghosts of her past-propel her rise from a modest west side shopfront to the top of Manhattan's tea trade.
The Tea Rose is the first book by Jennifer Donnelly I've ever read, but I can confidently say this was one of the lengthiest ones I've ever read. The book ranges in a mid-five hundred-page range that had me flying through some sections while slowing in others. This aspect will be the primary focus of my praise versus criticisms of the book as this ultimately lies at the core of what I did enjoy about the book and what I decided to formulate an opinion over.
Starting with the protagonist of this story, I can easily say I found Fiona to be a triumph. The quick-willed, passionately hot-tempered lass was an enormous joy to follow from the very first sentence. Due to the circumstances she faces and how she responds to them, the audience has no choice but to want this protagonist to succeed.
You can't read one of Donnelly's books and not give her credit for the historical accuracy in any of her novels. 1888 Whitechapel, London is as chilling as it rightfully should be and the later bustling New York City is how one imagines a historical depiction of the Big Apple.
The supporting characters are all endearing and faithful to the time, all conveying that "Donnelly charm" of decent human beings trying at the impossible thing we call life. The tears come when some of them come to an end, the witty banter earns enough laughter and the moments of unconditional love shared between them, and the protagonist are heartwarming.
My criticisms lie with the pacing throughout the book, which has more to do with the perspective changes of each chapter. As I mentioned earlier in the review, Fiona is a triumph to read, and thus her sections are always exciting. Many of the side characters in the story share this praise, but the problem then arises when the narrative perspective changes to a character that rounds to every side character with their narrative chapter. I'll reiterate every aspect is interesting and worth pursuing, but should the reader have lest interest in any particular character, the pacing effectively slows.
On a similar note, there are plenty of "snippet chapters" between that offer quick perspectives of side characters before returning to the protagonist and her love interest. Very true to Donnelly fashion but often these chapters left me wondering towards their being excess or questioning why they could not be combined with other "snippet chapters" to extend the moment with how frequently the moment continued in other chapters of similar length.
In fairness this criticism is small, but the root of why completing the book took far longer than intended. The Tea Rose regardless of this is a novel worth mentioning and picking up from your library or local bookstore.