India Selwyn Jones is a female doctor who wants to make a real change in the world. She dreams of opening up her own clinic in Whitechapel, a very poor area of London, and helping women and children have healthier, longer lives no matter their economic status. But her fiance would see her dreams stifled and aims to make her the perfect political wife, simply an asset to him as he rises to the top of British politics. It doesn’t take many ventures into Whitechapel before India meets Sid Malone, legendary bad guy who masterminds gangs of thieves, opium dens, and brothels, making a fortune on the backs of others. India doesn’t know that Sid is actually Charlie Finnegan, brother of Fiona Finnegan from The Tea Rose, but she quickly realizes that he is a gangster with a heart, and they have a cause in common – helping the poor of London to live better lives.
After reading The Tea Rose, I didn’t rush to open this, its sequel, simply because I wasn’t really that crazy about it. I knew Jennifer Donnelly could do better, though, and with some urging from my mom, who adored both books, I finally settled down to read it. While it still isn’t as polished as Donnelly’s later books, I found The Winter Rose to be a superior book in almost every way, with more realistic characters, a more intense love story, and another eye-opening peek into the often dreary world of Victorian London. There was even a trip into Africa, further widening the scope of the story, and all adding up to one insanely compelling book.
I loved that the central focus here was more on improving others’ lives, rather than enriching the characters’ own. India is wealthy, but she doesn’t act like a wealthy heiress of the time. She’s far more interested in prenatal care, saving lives, and eventually doing what she can just to make people happier. She eschews a comfortable position taking care of wealthy women to focus on those who really need her, and determines to make their lives better without wringing every last penny from them. Sid is also wealthy, but on the dark side of wealth; he knows what it’s like to be poor and does indeed do his part to shelter others from harm. He is a good man who sometimes does bad things. Though they are both superior to their peers in many ways, they never achieve the surreal perfection that both Fiona and Joe did in The Tea Rose; they remain firmly true to life and I was glad to follow them on their adventures. Fiona and Joe also feature in this book, though not the main characters; even with them Donnelly has dialled down the perfection and made them both more human and fallible while still retaining their core characters.
The scope of the novel is immense but the story doesn’t drag; it keeps moving and skips some of the parts which could have become boring. In fact, I read the last 300 pages in one sitting, staying up far later than normal to actually finish the book. I read it in about three days; its predecessor took me over a week. That should tell you how much more I enjoyed this book! I particularly loved the parts in Africa at the end; they were so evocative and suspenseful that I kept turning the pages well past when I should have stopped.
The Winter Rose is a fabulous, sprawling novel that takes into account not only characters’ lives and loves but the wide-ranging social situation of the poor and the wealthy. Highly recommended, and now I can’t wait to read The Wild Rose in August.
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