Sunday Salon – Review of “The Winter Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

The Sunday

I had thought it was not possible for The Winter Rose to be a superior book to The Tea Rose (see my review here), but incredibly, it was even better! Trust me, it is not often that I stay up until midnight and then get back up at 3 a.m. because I want to get back to a book! But it was not all straight reading, either: often I had to stop and pace, because I was so nervous about what would happen next!

This historical fiction saga that takes place in the early 1900s in London describes, inter alia, the problems of health care for poor women through the eyes of the protagonist, a woman doctor who struggles for respect because of her gender, and struggles for love because of her profession. It’s a continuation of The Tea Rose (which also kept me up all night reading), but either can be read as a standalone book.

What Donnelly excels at the most, in my opinion, is creating voices – Mattie in A Northern Light is totally different from Andi in Revolution and they even live almost a century apart, and yet Donnelly managed to make each of their voices sound utterly believeable and appropriate for their times. Moreover, they are both fully realized and frankly, unforgettable characters. They are young girls who are believers in dreams, but also determined to ferret out truth and justice. They do so courageously, and passionately. Similarly, Fiona Finnegan in The Tea Rose and India Jones in The Winter Rose are both feisty independent women deeply committed to social justice; who have an unending store of warmth and compassion (once their tempers have been expended); drive; courage; and an enduring capacity for love. But they have quite different and interesting weaknesses. Thus each sounds true to what she is meant to be. Donnelly may believe in strong female characters, but she is not a one-note nor a one-dimensional writer.

As in The Tea Rose, I also loved the male characters, and even missed the ones who died during the first book, because just like in real life, their memories continued to inspire and influence the loved ones they left behind.

This book may astound you as it educates you on the attitudes toward women, the birth process, and women doctors in the early 1900s, and on the crippling poverty that separated the lower class from the elite. Donnelly did a great deal of research to recreate the horrifying attitudes of the time. India, who is a pioneering woman doctor, opts to work in a clinic for poor women in Whitechapel to help “make a difference.” She is initiated into the era’s attitudes the first time she wants to give chloroform to a woman undergoing a painful delivery. Her male superior [sic] cuts her off:

“Thank you, Dr. Jones, but I do not require instruction on anesthesia from my junior. I am well aware of chloral’s properties. Labor pain is Eve’s legacy, and to ameliorate it would be against God’s will. Birth pains are good for women. The build character and inhibit indecent feeling.”

India soon discovers that women were dying during deliveries because the doctors wouldn’t wash their hands between patients, or because their bones were so misshapen from malnutrition that the baby couldn’t come out properly.

India learns even more when she improbably becomes friends with the gangster Sid Malone. He takes her on a tour of Whitechapel to help her see why admonishing women to eat more fruit and vegetables, or to fix porridge for their children, is ridiculous:

“Poor women can’t cook porridge, don’t you know that? Of course you don’t. Because you don’t know shit about the poor. Oh, you talk about them plenty. And you probably talk at them, too. But have you ever talked with them? I don’t think so, because if you had you’d know that porridge has to be boiled. That takes coal, and coal costs money. And if they could afford the expense, they still wouldn’t eat porridge. Put it on any table in Whitechapel and it’ll be thrown straight out the window. It’s too much like skilly, the shit that’s served in the spike. Ever been taken to a workhouse, India? Ever had your kids taken from you? Every last scrap of dignity stripped away? Think you’d ever want to eat what you’d been forced to eat there?”

If they are so short of money, India rails at Sid, why do the men use up precious shillings by stopping off in bars on the way home?

“‘For Christ’s sake, leave it be,’ he said angrily. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! Have you ever put in a sixteen-hour day at the docks? Heaving coal or sides of beef in the cold and the rain till you’d thought you’d drop dead? Then gone home to the wife and five kids, all stuffed into one drafty room? Some of them sick, all of them hungry. You have any idea of the desperation in those rooms? Of the anger? Can you blame a man for wanting to forget it all for an hour with a pint or two in a nice warm pub?”

Nevertheless, Sid doesn’t need India to tell him there is a better life somewhere else, doing anything else:

“He wanted to keep walking…, out of this unforgiving city, out of his unforgiving life. He wanted to walk all through the night, then sit… somewhere radiant and beautiful in the morning. By the coast. At the water’s edge. Where the stiff salt breeze would blow away the stench of his sins and the sea would wash him clean.”

As we follow the story of India, and Sid, as well as the characters we met in The Tea Rose, we come to learn just how much it takes to fight poverty and greed and evil, and how difficult it is to keep your faith in yourself and in humanity.

Evaluation: At bottom, this book is all about sin and redemption, and the hard, hard road it takes to get there. And it’s about the force of love that is sometimes all that is left to help push you down that road. But if that love is strong enough, it can get you there, if you just believe in it, and in yourself. It’s a beautiful story, and even after 707 pages, I felt bereft when it ended.

I hope this selection of quotes has given you a flavor of the emotional intensity of Donnelly’s soaring prose. I can’t say enough about the eloquence and grandeur of her books.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper Collins, 2006

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25 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “The Winter Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

  1. I am so sorry I haven’t read this sooner. Loved Tea Rose, and have this one on my shelf. Your review makes it sound amazing. thanks for sharing!

  2. Kay says:

    OK, you’ve sold me. I’ve meant to read this author’s books for a long time and have several of them. When I get my books unpacked after we move, I’ll start reading some of them. Thanks for whetting the appetite!

  3. Sandy says:

    You are a minx! So yesterday I ordered both on my Kindle, so I can read them and still abide by my TBR Dare. I can’t swallow the idea that she is better than Waters, but will accept her as an equal!!!

  4. Trisha says:

    You totally have me geeking for Connolly now. I have Revolution on my shelves somewhere I believe….

  5. JoAnn says:

    Great review! I loved The Tea Rose, and am adding this to my wish list now.

  6. Wendy says:

    Terrific review, Jill – I loved this book (and read it in its ARC form when it was first released). I agree that it is a surprising book – and is quite historical within the simpler story arc of the romance.

  7. Nymeth says:

    And just when I thought I couldn’t be more excited about these books, you have to go and post a review like this 😛

  8. Alyce says:

    It does sound good, but it also sounds like an emotionally intense read. I’m sure I’d be biting my nails and pacing the floor too!

  9. Staci says:

    I’m in love….swoon! I feel the need to own these! 😀

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    As I was quickly reading your review (since I plan to read this one soon) I thought I read Indiana Jones, LOL! Guess I need to slow down. Can’t wait for this one, especially since it had you waking up at 3 am to continue.

  11. Julie P. says:

    I didn’t say this after your last review, but I heard that this one is even better!!!! I must get my hands on it!

  12. Jenners says:

    So, just to be clear, if I read these books I need a lot of tissue and should plan to be up very very very late.

  13. zibilee says:

    Oh, so glad to hear that this one was amazing as well! I haven’t yet bought it, but now I think I am going to because this review rocked my socks off. Thanks for all the great quotes!

  14. Amanda says:

    I didn’t realize how much Jennifer Donnelly had written, though I admit I’ve never gotten through any of her books yet.

  15. This sounds *so* intriguing. I already have A Northern Light on my shelves – maybe I’ll have to take it down and read it earlier than I anticipated.

  16. Your high praise of thsi book has put it on to my TBR wish list! Thanks Jill! 🙂

  17. Margaret says:

    You’ve convinced me to read this book and The Tea Rose too. It’s not often you give a book 5 out of 5 – in fact I don’t think I’ve seen one from you before?

  18. Rural View says:

    Tea Rose and Winter Rose are both on my list now. Sounds good for something to do during a big winter storm when I don’t have to be pulled away to do something else.

  19. Wow! I’ve read NO Donnelly but all of a sudden she’s everywhere…and allegedly amazing! ;O)

  20. Steph says:

    Ok, I so want to read this… the only thing that is making me hesitate is knowing that the series isn’t complete. I’m one of those people who is totally happy to wait for a series to be finished before I pick it up so I can tear through it without waiting for the next book!

  21. Margot says:

    You have definitely sold me on these books. I’m going to start with The Northern Light first and then the two rose books. I’l let you know.

  22. marthalama says:

    Yay, I’m so glad to see you liked the next in the series. These two are now near the top of my 2011 list.

  23. Rita K says:

    I will start after Christmas – because obviously, if I start now I won’t get anything done again until I finish them.

  24. I loved A Northern Light, and now you have me excited about reading these books. Thanks!

  25. Andrea says:

    After reading your review, I have to read this book. I can’t wait!

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