Author : Jennifer Donnelly
Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; First Edition (December 10, 2007)
East London, 1888 - a city apart. A place of shadow and light where thieves, whores, and dreamers mingle, where children play in the cobbled streets by day and a killer stalks at night, where bright hopes meet the darkest truths. Here, by the whispering waters of the Thames, Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, hopes to own a shop one day, together with her lifelong love, Joe Bristow, a costermonger's son. With nothing but their faith in each other to spur them on, Fiona and Joe struggle, save, and sacrifice to achieve their dreams. But Fiona's life is shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man take from her nearly everything-and everyone-she holds dear. Fearing her own death, she is forced to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit propels her rise from a modest West Side shop-front to the top of Manhattan's tea trade. But Fiona's old ghosts do not rest quietly, and to silence them, she must venture back to the London of her childhood, where a deadly confrontation with her past becomes the key to her future.
A sweeping saga of enterprise, sacrifice, romance and glory – ‘The Tea Rose’ has made me an ardent admirer of Jennifer Donnelly’s. The characters, the storytelling, the atmosphere – everything is beautifully brought to stunning life. However, the crowning achievement of this multi-faceted story is how, through her words, the author brings to life places and people of a bygone era, making the readers feel as though they’re experiencing everything exactly how and as the characters are undergoing.
Like a master painter, with a few deft words Donnelly captures the ambiance of a city and a nation in turmoil. Set at the turn of century, it’s a time of change for the British (and indeed, the world) and nowhere is it more apparent than in the docks of Whitechapel. This poverty and disease ridden workingman’s area of London is the source of immense revenue, and yet it’s the blight on London’s face that no nobleman is willing to step into. But the workers are slowly but surely coming together in the form of Unions, to fight the oppression of the rich and the titled that reap the benefits of their labor and yet are unwilling to share the profits derived from their sweat. This is also the same time when Jack the Ripper has begun his murderous nightly quest. And so the scene is set for mayhem galore. At times, Donnelly’s words make the ugliness and the misery come to such life as to repulse you, but that just makes it all the more interesting.
As a beautiful counterpoint to all the ugliness, gore and unrest, there is the budding romance of two childhood sweethearts, Fiona and Joe. Their loud and large families, shy explorations into physical intimacy, constant struggle to work and save – everything reads true and bleeds romance. It’s enough to make you sniff sentimentally, if you’re that sort. However, things soon take a downward turn and the lovers are torn apart even as the situation at the docks comes to a boiling point.
Fiona flees for her life to New York where she’s faced with such challenges and temptations as would have overwhelmed a weaker person. But our heroine is made of sterner stuff and she triumphs against all odds. Or so you think. Once again Fate in the form of Donnelly steps in to create more complications. The focus shifts back to London where old ghosts must be laid to rest. How it all ends makes for a grand finale, almost Hollywood-like in its essence.
In fact that can be said of this entire book as well. All along, I felt like I was watching a period movie, one that goes from the squalors of London to the growing prosperity of New York. Most of the times you can guess what’s coming up, but this doesn’t in the least distract from the story. The true achievement of this novel lies in the author’s skill of capturing the ambiance of an era gone by – both in London and New York - through the form of small but accurate details whether it’s business, politics, social norms, dress, behavior, language etc. Real people put in cameo appearances and it’s delightful to read on, never knowing which famous character will pop up when.
Now that’s all said and done, let’s get to the heart of this novel. And that is TEA! You can glean that from the title itself. From the first page to the last, Tea in its various colors, aromas and strength serves as the focal point of this story. Having handled and tasted tea from a young age, Fiona is a connoisseur of Tea and uses this knowledge in the direst of times to make something of herself. Frankly, I found it impossible not to crave a cuppa when I read this book and mind you, I’m a coffee lover! It was interesting to see how Tea transcends country and class lines and provides nourishment and flavor from the humblest dockyard worker and his big family crammed in one room to the elegant lords and ladies in their grand salons.
Jennifer Donnelly skillfully weaves a web of various complex plot lines with the ease of a veteran and nearly ties them all up neatly towards the end. What’s left untied is fodder for the next novel in this series, The Winter Rose (I’ll be posting its review soon).
Nearly every page of this five hundred plus pages book held me enthralled and I can say this about very few books. This challenging, charismatic story will live long in my memory and has been given a coveted space in my keeper shelf.The Tea Rose. To enter, head on over to my other blog, A Book Blogger's Diary.
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