Review: The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Title: The Tea Rose 
Genre: historical fiction, romance novel-ish
Series: The Tea Rose #1
Published: April 2008
Pages: 620
Source: bought
Rating: 3.5/5

This is going to be an interesting review. But that is entirely fitting since this was an interesting book. I went back and forth on the rating of this as well. It's truly not good enough for more than a 3.5 star rating and yet, in the end, I sped through it and loved it. This also might end up being a tad bit more spoilery than I usually try to be; I honestly couldn't help it.

This was part daytime soap-opera distilled into book form, part historical fiction set in London/New York in 1880s/1890s, The Tea Rose is one hell of a fun, epic melodrama. We've got truly star-crossed lovers, decades-long revenge plots, sham marriages, murder plots, dockworker's union strikes, crooked politicians, Jack the Ripper, falling in love with New York millionaires, famous celebrity cameos, and of course, betrayal and redemption.
There is a LOT of story going on here. I might sound critical, and I should; this book is not without a myriad of faults. Fiona, the main character, though likable, starts out as a bit of a Mary Sue cliche. She can be irritatingly overemotional and jealous in the beginning and especially with her bloke, Joe Bristow. Those annoying traits are stamped out quickly, however. Once she loses her father and her innocence and naivete, Fiona can finally find her own strength. Her enemy, the ruthless tea merchant behind her father's death, William Burton is chilling, though one-dimensional.

Regardless of the sheer outrageousness of the plot, shallowness of various characters and all the deux ex machinas, I loved this novel. It does have several things going for it: Donnelly spent numerous years researching her time period and culture of the Whitechapel area of London. Her descriptions of bleak and beautiful London were vivid, well-written and best of all, authentic. There was definitely the feel of 19th century present throughout the book. Ms. Donnelly managed to create an enthralling, absorbing atmosphere I had a hard time pulling myself away from. 

Everything in this novel is done on a grand scale. Ms. Donnelly certainly does not believe in half-measures with her storytelling. Fiona needs hardship? Check - half her family is murdered (all, eventually it turns out at the machinations of Jack the Ripper!). She needs an epic love that is tested? Check - Joe and Fiona are separated FOR TEN YEARS. With NUMEROUS and frequent near misses between while they were actively searching for the other. It's comical.. Fiona wants to have a business to furnish her revenge? Check - she has the BIGGEST tea business in the United States.

While the over-the-topness can be fun and work for the novel (such as getting Fiona out on her own and develop into a real character instead of a Mary Sue), it can also detract from the essentials. For instance, in this novel our intrepid heroes/heroines meet: Jack the Ripper (and have personal business with), the Crown Prince of Wales of England (Albert Edward), Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and numerous other famous personages frequented Nick's idyllic life in Paris. Fiona's closest friend Nick, in addition to being the heir of the bank controlling Fiona's nemesis's company (though Nick and Fiona are unaware of this the entire time [10 years!!] they're friends) ends up being Viscount Elgin, firstborn son of the Duke of Winchester. That was all a bit much, really.

Fiona has ridiculous, extremely unlikely luck once she arrives in America (Nick gets her on the boat, a famous New York millionaire steps in o help her, falls in love with her, she "invents" iced tea and tea packets, etc); she has to in order to set her revenge against the men who killed her father. This made the book seem a bit rushed once Fiona and Seamie fled England. Also not helping the narrative were the random jumps of time between the three parts. Part Two to Part Three had an intervening nine years, in which crucial events to the story happen. Instead of showing Fiona build her business, her marriage, her revenge, it is simply "told" away in the beginning of the next part. I couldn't help but feel a bit cheated at that, and wish for more depth and exposition on Fiona's early struggles to make The Tea Rose salon a success.

Sadly, parts of the novel, though fun and campy, were entirely too predictable. Michael's recovery from alcoholism so rapidly and easily, Will McClane's swooping in to save Fiona's shop and proposing, his crooked son politician plotting against Fiona, the list goes on. I laughed a lot and often at this book. The only problem was that I was not sure I am laughing at the author/book or with them, where and as intended. 

Straining credulity, and poetic license aside (William Burton, Fiona's own personal foe was really Jack the Ripper? Really? That's where you went with that superfluous plotline?), I enjoyed this novel. It is not perfect, not even close. It's a melodramatic, over-the-top, romance-novelish tome of crazy. It's also a lot of fun. And the cover is pretty.


  1. Sounds like a book where the author's imagination went wild. :)

  2. She really, really did. Ridiculously deliciously fun!

  3. Loved this review! I gave up on this book at least once but I might try again when I'm in need of some serious fluff. I'm reminded a bit of a terrible-but-terribly-amusing trilogy I waded through, a historical series with some similar, ludicrous leaps.

  4. well, thanks! I enjoyed writing it. And what series did you muddle through that was so awful?!

  5. Posie Graeme-Evans' War of the Roses series. Each book got more and more over-the-top. In book one, our heroine is stunningly beautiful and an herbal healer (and a bunch of other stuff), in book two, she's got this preternatural understanding of international finance, and by book three, she does something totally insane, like witnesses gay sex and has an innate understanding that love between two men is really quite amazing even if she's been taught to find it repulsive. I can't remember exactly but even my big pro-gay self fell off the bed howling at that.

  6. heh, I snarfled by "international finance". I wonder how some authors get published, really, I do!


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