Caution: Gushing ahead!
This book was so good I was forced to stay up all night and read it. I got this book because Jennifer Donnelly has written such fantastic books for the young adult market that I was interested to know what her adult books were like. Many hours and lots of Kleenexes later, I can tell you that this riveting saga is just as beautifully crafted as her other work. The difference is, instead of reading about strong, wonderful girls, you read about strong, wonderful women.
This is an epic tale in the tradition of Thorn Birds or Gone With the Wind – the kind that makes you cry every five chapters or so. But this book far surpasses the others mentioned by its sophistication, its glorious period detail, and the extent to which it refuses to relegate salient socioeconomic factors to the background or place their importance secondary to romance.
We follow ten or so years in the life of Fiona Finnegan, starting when she was seventeen in 1888. This was a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots seemed like an unbridgeable chasm, and when Jack the Ripper terrorized the populace. Fiona lives in Whitechapel – a poor section of London – and shares dreams for the future with her boyfriend from forever, Joe Bristow. The two hope to save money and open a shop one day, but they have their families to help support, and backbreaking jobs with long hours that don’t pay much. The time they can steal away to be together is sweet and sustaining for both of them.
Fiona’s father, Paddy, works on the docks, and his dreams depend on the chance for unionization, and what it could mean to all the men:
“He looked around at the faces of the men who worked the docks, faces like anvils, hardened by the constant hammering life had given them. Usually it was porter or stout that erased the cares from those faces. Pint after pint. Washing away the bellowing foreman, the sad-eyed wife, the underfed children, the constant, aching knowledge that no matter how hard you worked, you’d only ever be a docker and there’d never be enough – enough coal in the bin, enough meat on the table.”
But when it came to Paddy’s eldest and favorite, Fiona, he encouraged her pursuit of something better:
“The day you let someone take your dreams from you, you may as well head straight to the undertaker’s. You’re just as good as dead.”
Fiona worked at the local tea factory under the exploitative and cruel owner, Willliam Burton. Joe was a costermonger (in Britain, one who sells fruit, vegetables, fish, or other goods from a cart, barrow, or stand in the streets). And Joe was great at it; no one could sell like he could and he was full of ideas about how to expand the business. His father wouldn’t pay attention to him, but the affluent entrepreneur Tommy Peterson, egged on by his daughter Millie, saw something in Joe, and hired him on. Millie wanted Joe for her own, and set out a plan to entrap him. Joe was seduced as much by his own ambition and need for validation and respect as by Millie. The Peterson family had money, comfort, and seemingly no worries. It was a far cry from the life he had back in Whitechapel.
When Joe leaves to work for Peterson, and Fiona’s dad takes over the local union organizing, tragedy begins to strike Fiona from all directions. She, taking her five-year-old brother Seamus with her, flees to America. She seems to have lost everything except the memory of her father’s advice, and so she pursues the dreams she once had so long ago. But this time, she wants them with a vengeance.
Fiona is an outstandingly strong, independent woman, only occasionally tempted to take the easy way out by hiding behind the role of a wife. The men in her life are some of the best characters I’ve “met” in a long time, and we learn a great deal about Fiona’s character just from her reactions to them. I love the fact that, rather than a narrator telling us who Fiona is, we get to learn it ourselves from observing her interactions with others and how she copes with the Job-like trials that plague her.
The period detail is masterful, and the swings of passion, weariness, tumult, cruelty, longing, tenderness and moments of sheer joy demonstrate once again Donnelly’s narrative craftsmanship, not to mention the depth and breadth of her interests and knowledge.
Donnelly is perhaps also here showing her interest in Dante’s hell that she takes up in her book Revolution. To a great extent, this book is about the seven deadly sins: lust [traditionally includes the frequent purchase of luxury goods and forms of debauchery], gluttony [over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste], greed, sloth [born out of depression and despair], wrath, envy, and pride. The characters who give in to these sins create havoc in the worlds of those who are trying to live simple lives of love and charity. It is not difficult to believe that Donnelly ascribes greater power to the forces of evil. And yet, somehow, sometimes, there is a glimmer of light, and love finds a way.
Evaluation: Terrific book. Stock up on Kleenex.
Note: If you think from all the gushing that this was my favorite read of the year, check my review for the sequel, here.