The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Title: The Tea Rose
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003
Source: Library

Fiona Finnegan, a worker in Burton's tea factory, knows tea so well she can tell you what it is just by smelling it. Her dreams stretch beyond the factory to owning a tea shop of her own, and the handsome Joe Bristow wants to help her do it. However, as circumstances change and twist down unexpected paths, Fiona will take a turn away from Joe and into a life she never expected.

Oh, Jennifer Donnelly. You just have this way with you. At the beginning of this book, I was disappointed. The huge tome flitted back and forth between characters' perspectives in third person omniscient, a style I don't really care for that seems all too pervasive in historical fiction. I missed the strong, personality-filled first person voices of Donnelly's two young adult novels. And the drama that gave Revolution and A Northern Light so much passion at first seemed mawkish and over the top, with Fiona's loved ones dropping like flies. I almost felt like I didn't have to turn the page - I knew that someone was going to die, or some plan was going to fall through, or the money had run out, or the cows hadn't come home. After about 150 pages, I was ready to throw in the towel.

And then, somehow, Donnelly lured me in. Despite my annoyance at all the drama, despite my sense of being jarred as perspectives switched from character to character (all in the third person, mind you), I became emotionally invested in the story. Despite my lack of interest in the business world, or the fact that it did seem ludicrous that Fiona was thrust into society with the monopoly giants of her time. Despite the fact that it seemed absolutely silly to me to claim that she'd invented iced tea as a sales tactic to the South. Despite the fact that for much of the book Joe Bristow seemed like an absolute word-I-can't-say-in-a-public-space and I couldn't understand why she just wouldn't get over him.

Okay, that is a fairly long list of "despites." However, at the end of the book, I couldn't stop thinking of it. Once again, Donnelly pulled her trick of weaving in a historical event with astonishing believability - this time, with Jack the Ripper, a subject I was surprised to see lending itself so well to the story as a whole. She also had her invented historical character woven into the plot, although in this case it was Fiona herself, a tactic I don't think works quite as well with a main character. And by the end, Joe had grown up a little bit, and I was able to accept him. I honestly never loved him, but I was able to grant him the right to Fiona's heart.

The real pull for me in this story, I think, was Nicholas Soames, Fiona's best friend and right-hand man. He was the reason I couldn't get the story out of my head days after finishing it. For some reason I am absolutely entranced by stories of strong, platonic friendship love between men and women. Maybe it's because my own life romance grew out of a platonic friendship into something more. It's the element in a love story that will always seal the deal for me, even if the relationship never becomes a true love story. Nicholas and Fiona's relationship was unconventional in every way, but it solidified what would have been only a weak inclination toward the book.

The Tea Rose is definitely a first novel, lacking the polish and passion of the other works I've read by Donnelly. However, it still made a lasting impression, and I look forward to finishing the trilogy. I'm only giving it a 3.5 because I expect better from Donnelly, but don't let that keep you from reading it.

3.5 stars

Warnings for the sensitive reader: Some f-bombs from dock workers, 4-5 sex scenes I had to skim over because they were too graphic for me


  1. I keep considering this book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Andrea @ Reading Lark

  2. Hrrm..I go back and forth on whether I want to read this book or not. Thanks for the review!

  3. I've never actually read any Jennifer Donnelly. It sounds like this may not be the best place to start?

  4. I think A Northern Light is Donnelly's first novel, not The Tea Rose. The Tea Rose is on my TBR list and I'm looking forward to reading it. I loved both Donnelly's A Northern Light (five stars) and Revolution (four stars). I definitely suggest you give A Northern Light a try.

    Lovely blog you have here!

  5. @Andrea - You're welcome. Thank you for stopping by!

    @Swapna - No problem! I ultimately decided not to finish the trilogy due to language but I was moved by this story.

    @Sam - I would focus on the young adult novels. I enjoyed those the most.

    @Sandra - I didn't know that - good to know! I enjoyed A Northern Light. Revolution was certainly my favorite. Thank you!


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