Review of “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

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.

Rating: 5/5

Note: If you think from all the gushing that this was my favorite read of the year, check my review for the sequel, here.


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27 Responses to Review of “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

  1. JoAnn says:

    I loved this, too…. except I went to bed and finished it the next day 😉

  2. Sandy says:

    You almost never give a book five stars. Obviously I’m going to have to make these books my project in the new year! I think my Kindle is calling me…

  3. I LOVE LOVED this book as well, and on my shelf sits The Winter Rose, which I hope to read n early 2011. So happy you enjoyed this one.

  4. zibilee says:

    I have had this book on my shelf for such a long time, and not yet read it. I know there is a sequel out there called The Winter Rose, I think. Your review has made this book sound so engrossing and enticing and now I am wanting to run to my shelf and pull it out right now! Thanks for the excellent and enthusiastic review!

  5. Nymeth says:

    As I told you in my e-mail… want want want want WANT!

  6. Rita K says:

    It is on my bedside table. So I will start reading it. I don’t usually read historical fiction anymore although I remember staying up all night WAY back in the day reading “The Thornbirds.” The last historical fiction I tried was “Pillers of hte Earth” and I quit reading it, I thought it was so awful. But since this is on your best of list this year I know it must be worthwhile, so read it I will, Jlli!

  7. Steph says:

    Ok, wow! Since you pretty much never give books a perfect score AND you so rarely get gushy, I am super intrigued by this book. In fact, I’ve popped over to Amazon and done a quick “look inside”, and I have to admit, now I really want to read this book! That is a killer first paragraph. For Xmas we are holidaying up in Minnesota with my inlaws who have tons of property but essentially no internet (it’s dial-up). I’m thinking this might be a perfect series to take along with me to devour whilst away.

  8. Katy says:

    This one is on my wishlist, but I’ve been waffling about it. Sounds like I need to get it now.

  9. marthalama says:

    I have never heard of this book and now thanks to your wonderful , glowing review it’s on order.

  10. jewwishes says:

    What a wonderful review. I have seen this book, but have yet to buy it…your review will have me doing just that.

  11. Thorn Birds and GWTW but better… Okay, I’m going to have to read this one. I just jotted down the title and hope to have time for it in the new year. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Rural View says:

    Wow – you gushing! The book is on my list with a star beside it. I’m going to love this one, I just know it.

  13. Margot says:

    I confess I’d never heard of Jennifer Donnelly until a couple of weeks ago. Her book, Revolution, was on the wish list of my Secret Santa Swap person. I couldn’t find it so I ordered it from the owner of a very nice children’s book store. She ordered three copies and when they came in she stayed up all night reading one of the copies. When I came in she was gushing and glowing about this book and thought I was some book-genius for ordering it.. (I did set her straight.) But now, with your review of The Tea Rose, and your 5/5 rating, I have to read this author. The dilemma is which one first.

  14. Alyce says:

    With a recommendation like that how could I not add this to the wish list. I loved The Thorn Birds and have been meaning to read Gone With the Wind for a long time.

  15. Jenny says:

    Look at you and your gushing self making me want to stay home all day Saturday and read this book! I’m going to have to make a stop at the library tomorrow, obviously. :p

  16. Julie P. says:

    I loved this one too. It was my first experience with Ms. Connelly’s books and I’ve been meaning to go back and read her other ones.

  17. Staci says:

    I am definitely reading this series next year. Between you and Nise I have to…I absolutely must! 😀

  18. Lisa says:

    It sounds like Donnelly would make a great author for my daughter and I have to have a readathon together with!

  19. Iris says:

    I have come across this book so many times in bookstores and I somehow assumed the arrogant attitude that it looked like “a silly chick-lit-y kind of book”. I know, stupid me! Granted, the Dutch cover looks completely “let’s have a romance in France”, but I shouldn’t have judged, I shouldn’t have! Anyway, you just resolved that for me, and I shall try to do better. Oh, and put this on my wishlist 🙂

  20. stacybuckeye says:

    Your awesome review puts mine to shame, but I expect that from you 🙂 I’s so glad you fell in love with it too.

  21. Jenners says:

    Well how can I pass this one up??? I love me a multiple Kleenex book … and it sound like the follow-up is equally good.

  22. Meg says:

    Yep — you’ve got me convinced!

  23. I have The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose on my owned/signed-TBR and I’m a bit nervous to read them. Mainly because once I read them I won’t have any other Jennifer Donnelly books to look forward to (I’ve read and adored A Northern Light and Revolution). Sigh.

  24. Biblibio says:

    Though I haven’t read The Tea Rose, I suspect based on Donnelly’s young adult novels that she’s a writer who though officially writing gender neutral topics, writes mostly for women (or girls…). Your review makes this seem like an interesting book regardless gender (rather like Revolution, which was far better suited for both genders than A Northern Light), though I may be reading into the summaries and marketing in a bad way. I’m curious to know what you think.

    • Bibliobio,
      That’s an excellent question, and one I feel I can’t answer. I think marketing, however, definitely shoves books into niches from which it is hard to recover. I’d love to know myself how men relate to books marketed to women. Anecdotally, my husband was enjoying Hunger Games quite a bit until I let it slip that it was a “young adult” book. After that, his attitude changed markedly!

  25. Kaye says:

    Wow, does this sound fantastic!I just sort of skimmed because I do so want to read this one. Glad to see you rated it so highly.

  26. Pingback: Best Books I Read This Year – 2010 « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

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