Review: The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Genre: historical fiction, romance novel-ish
Series: The Tea Rose #2
Published: January 2008
Pages: 710
Source: bought
Rating: 4/5

As before with my previous Jennifer Donnelly novel, this one was an interesting read, and I might get a wee bit spoilery. And looooooong. After finishing the first, the question inquiring minds [me] want to know was if the author could top the sheer spectacle of The Tea Rose? That answer was a resounding YES, yes she can.  We've got illegal drug trades, unwitting use of said drugs by innocent persons, women's suffrage, the emergence of female doctors in the workplace, dirty cops and politicians, a modern-day [1900's] Robin Hood, Africa, amputations, TWO escapes from jail, a serial killer, more star-crossed lovers (two couples this time! 100% increase in Angst Opportunity over last time!), women being hunted by lions and hyenas AND the most repellant antagonist I've read this year.

If I liked The Tea Rose and enjoyed its amount of sheer ridiculousness, then I loved The Winter Rose. This second story focuses on a female doctor, India, the quietly fierce, determined and oh yeah, disowned heir to the Selwyn Jones fortune, and the brother of the protagonist from the first, Fiona Finnegan's brother Charlie/Sid Malone. Instead of a Fiona-like righteous revenge driven plot like the first, this story focuses on the redemption of morally deficient, damaged Sid Malone.

The story blends the action and melodrama together much better than its predecessor. There is a believable mix of the outrageous (Joe Bristow personally knew Jacob Riis the American muckraking photojournalist?), and the touching when Sid and India are reunited for the [FINAL] time in the epilogue. But where Donnelly truly excels is the same as before: in creating a believable, gripping, and rich atmosphere for her characters. (I may or may not have walked around using a 'orrible Cockey accent after finishing each book. I admit nothing.) Whitechapel is such a huge part of both these novels and the characters within them: the poverty and deprivation each suffered here marked them for life, in ways they're constantly discovering. Fiona, Charlie, Seamie, and Joe might have left Whitechapel behind, but they will never escape it.

I enjoyed the wit in this novel immensely. For instance when a crooked politician tells Sid that "crime doesn't pay", Sid's aside: "Not like politics does, that's for sure". In fact, I laughed a lot in this novel, during the lighter moments that were few and far between. Fiona, tea magnate extraordinaire, names her two dogs "Twinning" and "Lipton" because "they are forever at her heels." The humor was a nice and apropos touch against such a bleak backdrop for the characters.

One of the less-well executed elements in this novel was the constant and loquacious recapping of the first book.  This happened nearly every other chapter and it got old, fast. It were heavy-handed when a light touch was need. For instance it was, "Fiona remembered back to that dark day when she learned her father died, and then had to flee to America, save her friend from ruin with a 10 year sham marriage, all the while creating the biggest tea empire in the world and pining away for her true love," instead of "Fiona remembered." Also, the foreshadowing was awful at creating suspense. The author would just ominously state something like: "Fiona thought she'd be safe. She was wrong" or "The past will always come back to bury you". If you're going to go that route, you might as well type DUN DUN DUNNNNN after "you".

I honestly believe the Charlie/Sid story arc from the first novel was superbly and tragically done. It continued to be the best element of this story; India and Sid's struggles to make a life for themselves anew held me attention far more than the Seamie/Willa story. It was sad, and oddly riveting to watch a promising and caring young man get sucked so far deep into London's underbelly that he became someone else entirely: Sid Malone. It's quite telling that until a serious threat is levelled to Fiona in Charlie's domain without Charlie helping her, Fiona refuses to call her brother Sid, referring him to constantly by his given name. Besides India, there was only one person who truly believed in Charlie and that was his sister Fiona. Fiona also seems to work best as a secondary character. MAybe I'd just read another 500+ page tome focusing on Fiona Finnegan Soames Elgin Bristow and a I needed a POV break. Either way, she was much less abrasive in this.

Let's talk about Charlie Finnegan/Sid Malone. I love him. LOVE. HIM. Donnelly made him so compelling, I couldn't help but love his character the most and genuinely care what happened in his life. He is funny, and obviously a rogue with a tender side. He falls for India, a do-good brand-new doctor who dreams to open a free clinic in Whitechapel. Slowly but inevitably, he came one of my favorite male leads this year.

India was also likable, a nice change from the immediate fierce, in-your-face attitude of Fiona. She is much more quiet and unassuming, but she posses a hidden fire and an unflinching will that was remarkable. The novel acquires its name from Sid's description of her: a woman as rare as a rose blooming in winter. While she begins as a brash know-it-all, and sweeps into Whitechapel assuming broccoli and porridge are going to cure all the slum's ills, Sid shows her how deep the problems are within Whitechapel and its people. Driven unto further action by the horror and despair of the slum, India becomes determined to do good in her city. En route, she falls in love with Sid, with this "bad man trying to do a good thing" and decides to leave her life for a new one with him in America.

India begins the novel freshly graduated from med school and engaged to childhood friend, Freddie Lytton. Freddie, from a broke noble family, is a slug that slowly reveals his slimy nature each time he appears within the pages. He does not love India since she dared to love someone else (before she knew of his feelings), and is using India to try and divert her inheritance towards a political campaign. He is a turncoat both politically and personally. He is shown as having a difficult childhood with his noble and abusive father. Accidentally killing his father when he was just 12, Freddie beings a dark slope that becomes truly despicable. He manipulates India's first love into prison and death, he out-right murders India's cousin Wish when he attempts to help her with the free clinic and he murders Sid's former girlfriend when Sid falls in love with India. Then the places the blame on Sid so Sid cannot runaway with the now-unbeknownest-to-him pregnant India.

All in all, this was just as crazy as book one. I just cared way, way more about the characters. I actually got a little teary when Sid and India were separated in London and Africa, and then Africa again and then America. Perhaps because Sid was more complicated and damaged than Fiona, he wasn't perfect, and therefore easier for me to love. Perhaps because India seemed more relatable to me, and so fierce for who and what she loved. I don't know what it was exactly, but I was hooked by these two characters and their story. Job well done, Donnelly.

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