Sssstt….don’t tell, but the cat has found a new guilty pleasure. And she’s called Jennifer Donnelly. A while back the cat was mightily impressed by A Gathering Light (aka A Northern Light), which deservedly won prizes left and right as it not only reads like a train, but harbors one of the age-long issues of YA literature: how to grow up in a manner true to yourself and making decisions which will have an impact of the rest of your future life. Donnelly was definitely a writer to watch, so where to start better than with her 675-page (!) debut novel The Tea Rose.
Not to be gender-specific here, but alpha males, please abstain from reading on… Also, book snobs, definitely stop reading now! If, on the other hand, you (even though it’s only secretly) enjoyed Sleepless in Seattle, Gone With the Wind, Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 mini-series with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, obviously…) or Titanic and one Mr Nicholas Sparks makes your book-boat rock…(or all of the aforementioned, for that matter), then please do continue as I am sure that you will absolutely adore The Tea Rose! You’re in for a thrilling historical romance and a page-turner at that!
Fiona Finnegan is 17 and lives in the poverty-stricken Whitechapel area of London at the time of the Jack The Ripper murders. She’s chockfull of dreams of a better life as a merchant. Along with her true love Joe she wants to earn enough money so they can start up their own shop. However, something and someone thwarts this plan, and Fiona finds herself forced to flee London and escapes to New York where she tries to build a new life for herself.
The Tea Rose has a number of mesmerizing elements going for it… Endearing heroine? Check! Victorian London? Check! Jack the Ripper mythology? Check! A love story spanning 2 continents? Check… throw in some New World entrepreneurial endeavors, tea, gay best friend, murder(s), trade unions, etc. and you’ve got yourselves a family saga, that can truly be called Epic. On a sentimental, “I-secretely-love-watching-sappy-romance-movies-when-no-one-else-is-home” level, the cat LOVED.EVERY.BIT.OF.THIS! Truly! Not even being sarcastic about it. What’s not to love? Donnelly’s prose is sumptuous. Her descriptions are vividly detailed recalling a time when authors still cared about taking the time to tell a story and would not be constricted by that “less than 240 pages” dictum that many a YA (or other) editor would force upon their authors for marketing reasons. Moreover, the main character Fiona is incredibly likable in that Every Woman’s Heroine kind of way. The side characters are actually developed (yes, yes, I know, they’re clichés) and the story has a bit of everything thrown in that makes it so damn addictive to stay away from! Soap operas eat your heart out!
On top of that, Donnelly clearly has done her homework when it comes to the historical part of the novel. She weaves the Jack the Ripper mythology in her novel – though not focusing on the canonical five, which actually worked for the first part of the novel. Furthermore, incorporating an important subplot about the upcoming labor unions in the 1880s and 1890s in London was a nice Dickensian touch, and one which serves to rationalize the decisions of the protagonist. In part two of the novel, it’s Fiona’s awareness of the ‘new markets’ and the upcoming New World capitalist ideology which is skillfully outlined by Donnelly. I have to say, even though a lot of what Fiona accomplishes in Part 2 of the book really is quite unbelievable and definitely too good to be true, it’s captivating to read how Old World characters like Fiona discover New World ideologies and business strategies: a true rags to riches story.
On the other hand, this debut novel is definitely not without its flaws… the biggest flaw? Predictability. Yes, at almost every step of the way you know what will happen next, and you are reminded how in this historical romance novel, the focus really is the romance and not the history. It’s never a question of whether Joe and Fiona will meet each other again, it’s just a matter of when this will happen and under which circumstances. Of course, our courageous and determined, almost flawless heroine will first have to overcome a dozen of mishaps, get into a number of pickles involving strange marital arrangements, set up a ton of important businesses to be reckoned with, before she can finally meet her one true love Joe Bristow again. Yes, predictable. Yes, sappy. But who cares? The cat didn’t… well, not up until Part 3 of the novel, when Fiona is once again transported from America to London and a meeting with Joe becomes completely inevitable… Actually, it’s the whole ‘will they/won’t they’ string of coincidences and just-missed encounters that downgraded this otherwise utterly entertaining novel from a 4 to a 3+ star rating. The cat could have done without all the (yes I admit it, cheap) sentiment in part 3, the weird almost deus ex machina rescue at the end of the book. Not to spoil anything, but let it suffice to say that the fact that there’s 2nd book (and a 3rd) in this family saga is due to an incredibly unbelievable twist of events in part 3 of The Tea Rose. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but this was stretching it a little bit too much…
Because of the fact that this book is incredibly captivating and exciting in Part 1, The Tea Rose is a guilty pleasure despite its unbelievable and overly (melo)dramatic ending. A book to curl up with. Make sure to have chocolate, wine (or tea if you are so inclined…) nearby, and get all of your husbands and boyfriends out of the house, stat! And yes, despite the predictability of it all[i], the cat just knows she’ll read The Winter Rose. Such is the addictive nature of Donnelly’s prose. Not even feeling guilty about it. Not even one bit. Get out, you book snob!
[i] BTW, reviewers who call this book boring are just lying to themselves. Predictable? Yes. Boring? Never!