Fiona Finnegan may be a poor tea worker in London, but she and her boyfriend Joe have big dreams. They want to own their own shop rather than work for other people and they know exactly how to do it. But while their dreams are big in their heads, and their love consumes their hearts, other factors are working against them. For one thing, Jack the Ripper is wreaking his vengeance on London whores, but no one knows when he’ll strike other women instead. And another woman has her sights set on Joe, a woman who can offer him more than Fiona in terms of wealth and prospects. Everything collides against her and Fiona finds herself en route to the United States, where she’ll finally learn to run her own shop and eventually confront the ghosts of her past.
After I so enjoyed both A Northern Light and Revolution, I knew I wanted to read more by Jennifer Donnelly, and all recommendations coming in told me that The Tea Rose was the book to read. Luckily, I already had it – so if you’ll recall, I made it one of the books I aimed to read by the end of 2010, and I succeeded. I think reading the other two books first was a bit of an injustice to it, but it was good and absorbing in its own way.
For a start, this is an epic saga of Fiona’s life, which is fairly obvious from its length. We follow her from her teenage years, which are hard-working but relatively peaceful and full of dreams, into the turmoil of her twenties, and then into her accomplished thirties – at which point she has to go back and face her demons. There’s no question that it was an absorbing story and that I was eager to find out what happened next to Fiona – it didn’t drop my attention once over the course of its 550 (large) pages.
At the same time, it feels a bit less polished than Donnelly’s other works. It’s the kind of book where Fiona is responsible for all great inventions, in that way reminding me a bit of that series by Jean M. Auel (but without the constant caveman porn), where Ayla even manages to invent a sewing needle. Fiona constantly has ideas that set her apart from everyone else, and while I enjoyed the core story, I felt it was just a bit too much. I didn’t think one woman revolutionized the store, and then went on to revolutionize tea, in quite the same way, and it almost made it more difficult to relate to Fiona because she was just too extraordinary. Joe is similarly just too perfect; sure he makes mistakes, but his character isn’t really flawed and his genius wins out. In this way it was nothing like Donnelly’s other books, which I did feel had realistic and flawed characters. It is a first book and, having read later work, feels that way.
Still, for a first book, it is very good; the period details is fantastic and it’s immediately absorbing. I’m going to continue reading the series, especially considering I already own The Winter Rose, and I have high hopes for where Donnelly will go next. The Tea Rose is recommended for those who enjoy sagas set in Victorian England and New York City.
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