Review: The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (Spoiler Free)

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
Read: September 11 – September 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover (library book), 546 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne, 2002

Book Club selection. (Historical Fiction genre)

Book Blurb: 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.

My Opinion: The Tea Rose was kind of like a historically inaccurate soap opera set in 19th century London and New York. I love the historical fiction genre, something I discovered quite by surprise after reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. But the big difference here was that Jennifer Donnelly didn’t seem to care much for the historical aspect of her writing. When writing about the past, it is true that certain liberties can be taken, but they shouldn’t be taken at every turn.

Case and point. Fiona (our main protagonist) becomes a self-made millionaire over a span of ten years in New York. The first self-made female millionaire in America didn’t happen until around 1920. The Tea Rose is set in the late 1800s.

There is a fair bit of romance that happens in the book. It was nice at first, but it quickly became very soap opera-esque. There were secret trysts, gay husbands and so many near hits/misses with Fiona and Joe that I wanted to tear my hair out. Multiple times. And I don’t look good bald.

The characters were very one-dimensional, and Fiona is a Mary Sue in the truest sense. She is a character set up just to be torn down, and there is only so much of that a reader can take. Bad things happen to good characters, it is part of writing. But piling up the bad and then pulling something good out of thin air to atone for it is weak. Your story should be able to rest on more than just bad things happening to the characters, and this one didn’t.

Writing and language wise, I found The Tea Rose very enjoyable. I liked that the accents were spelled out, I liked the backdrop for the story. The prose was very descriptive, and the details were succulent. I just didn’t care overly much for the story itself. Some things didn’t make sense to me, like how Fiona only met other foreigners in New York, and never any Americans. As a millionaire, you would think she would have business dealings with all sorts of people.

The Bottom Line: A story with a lot of promise that failed to deliver. The main characters get themselves into stupid situations, and then the author writes fantastical compensation for them. I might read the second book, depending on the description, but it is not high on my list priority-wise.


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