2004 reissue of 2003 release, Historical Fiction (Late Victorian England and New York)
St. Martin's, $7.99, 756 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312993560 Part of a series
I picked up The Tea Rose on a whim a couple of years ago. I’d never heard of the author, but the cover was beautiful and the summary sounded promising. After several days of smiling, laughing, and crying my way through the book, I was so glad for that whim, because the story immediately became a favorite. The sequel, The Winter Rose, is out now, so I decided to re-read the first in preparation for the second. I want to encourage anyone who enjoys epic love stories to do the same.
Fiona Finnegan lives a simple, hard-working life with her family, but she dreams of much more. Her father is a dockworker for Burton Tea, she works as a tea-packer for the same company, her mother is a laundress, and her brother, Charlie, brings in anything he can. There is also a baby sister and four-year-old Seamie. The big family scrimps by week to week, but is ultimately happy. The year is 1888 and the area is Whitechapel, so a certain serial killer roams the streets, slashing and mutilating prostitutes and scaring all of London. The organization of labor unions has just begun to be productive and Fiona’s father becomes the leader of the Wapping Tea Operatives, wanting to reduce labor hours and increase wages by a penny an hour.
Fiona doesn’t pay too much attention to all this, however, because she is deeply in love with her neighbor, Joe Bristow, and has been for her entire life. He returns the sentiment and the two dreamed of owning their own shop for ages. Every week they both set aside a small part of their earnings to fund their dream and little by little they are getting closer. But Millie Peterson, who once lived near them but has since moved up in the world, has plans of her own. Millie wants Joe and has never been denied anything. Her father, a very successful produce man, offers Joe a job, which he quickly accepts. Fiona is upset and worried about the Petersons' involvement. She doesn’t want Joe to move from their neighborhood, but she understands that this will help them on their way to success and maybe even allow them to get married sooner.
Then Fiona’s father dies in a dock accident. With the huge loss of money, the family must move. The baby becomes ill. Charlie fights for money and tries to take care of the family. Things are falling apart and Fiona’s only happiness comes from being with Joe and knowing that he makes much more at his new job and can put a lot towards their dream. Joe tries to be there for his girl, but he is busy living the high life in Covent Garden. During a company party, he gets a promotion and becomes drunk on alcohol and the prospect of easy living. Millie then initiates her plan and leads him to her room to seduce him. She gets what she wants, but Joe’s mistake destroys his and Fiona’s future together.
After some more devastating trials, Fiona flees the country for America and things finally start looking up. The story continues to follow Joe’s and Fiona’s lives while they struggle to become successful and happy. The latter goal is the most elusive, as they are both still completely in love with each other. But all the heartache and pain make the end triumphs that much more satisfying.
This is an epic love story that spans many years, so if you can’t abide long separations or characters who make mistakes, you might not like it. Donnelly’s writing is superb. The descriptions are wonderful and draw you into the life of working class London and growing New York. The characters are richly portrayed and their emotions become your emotions. The quality of writing did falter a bit in the middle, but picked back up for the ending. Even though I was reading the book for the second time, I found myself greedily turning the pages to see what was going to happen next.
I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up The Tea Rose. Do not be intimidated by the small print and number of pages, for it is worth the time and effort. When I first finished reading the book and placed it among my collection of keepers, I had no idea that a trilogy was planned. Now that I do, I cannot wait to get my hands on the next book and see if the author can dazzle me again.
-- Andi Davis
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