Have you ever read the kind of book that stays with you for weeks after you turned the last page? The kind of book that creates a world you become immersed in? The kind of book whose characters feel so real you can’t stop thinking about them? The Tea Rose, by Jennifer Donnelly, was like this for me. The novel was first published in 2004, so I was quite late to the party, but it has since become one of those books I tell everyone to include on their must read lists.
Now I should note, it's not a YA novel, and it's not particularly short. In fact it's a heffa of a book, but I loved every inch of that heart-wrenching, beautifully told heffa-ness! I've been talking about it now and again for a while, and noticed a lot of people haven't read it so I thought a review (it's hardly a review, it's more a "oh my gosh this book is amazing" rant) should be published. I wrote this a while ago, just after I read it, but never did anything with it so thought this would be an appropriate place.
The Tea Rose follows Fiona Finnegan, a young girl of Irish descent living in Whitechapel in the late 1880s. The east side of London is a place of darkness, where thieves and whores operate, families shiver in their cold and drafty homes and a killer with the name of Jack the Ripper stalks the cobbled streets at night. Fiona works in a tea factory, helping her family buy enough food for the week, and dreaming of owning her own teashop one day with the love of her life, Joe Bristow. With nothing to their name, the love and faith Fiona and Joe share in each other is enough to fuel their dreams.
Suddenly, in more tragedy one person should ever have to bear in a lifetime, Fiona’s life is shattered and she loses almost everyone and everything she holds dear. Fiona must flee London in order to escape the clutches of death, and try to move on with her life. She begins again in New York, drawing strength from those she meets along the way, and the knowledge of what she left behind in London to rise above and become a force to be reckoned with. As in any dramatic story, the ghosts of Fiona’s past are not content to rest in peace, drawing her back to where she started and taking readers on a whirlwind adventure.
At 768 pages, this book is long. It’s in the family of ‘hefty novels’. But at the same time it doesn’t feel like it. It’s possible this book should come with a warning. It will consume you and it only took me a week to read. . When I was reading, I was physically unreachable to anyone outside the pages of my book. When I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about what just happened and wondering what would happen next. The Tea Rose is the best kind of page-turner. The kind that has action from the very start, and keeps throwing curveballs at you until you realise Donnelly won’t hold back in what she puts her characters through.
The thing I love most about this novel is that the strong female protagonist handles everything life throws at her, yet continues to rise above and be an inspiration to others. If Fiona was real, I’m pretty sure I’d want her to be my BFF. Donnelly’s other strong point is that the world she creates is so incredibly real. You really feel like you’re right there in Whitechapel, walking through the cobblestones streets with Fiona or Joe; or right there in New York cleaning out her uncle’s grocery store. Fiona, Joe and Nick – these aren’t just characters in a book. These are people you come to know and love, who you cheer on in their triumphs and whom you’re genuinely concerned for when they put themselves in the face of danger.
That is probably why Donnelly chose to write more. Fans of the book were desperate to know what became of their newfound friends.
Donnelly’s The Tea Rose is followed up with The Winter Rose and then The Wild Rose. Both books follow a different member of the Finnegan family and as all three books are told from multiple narratives, readers are introduced to new characters and storylines, as well as following loved characters from the previous books. In each of the books I particularly loved how Donnelly wove real events and people into the stories. Main characters in the books encounter William Churchill, Earnest Shackleton, Tom Lawrence and a character based on Gertrude Bell.
While the sequels are both worthy of reading, The Tea Rose is – of course- the superior novel of the trilogy. I’m not sure what category you would place this epic saga – in fact, it almost creates its own category with a combination of romance, thriller, action and mystery.
The Tea Rose will make you laugh, cry, sit on the edge of your seat in suspense. But most of all, it will make you you fall in love - with the characters, London, New York and possibly even tea!