Jennifer Donnelly,
The Tea Rose
(Thomas Dunne, 2002)

Jennifer Donnelly's first novel sprawls comfortably across approximately a decade of the life of Fiona Finnigan, one of the feistiest characters to take up residence between the covers of a book. It won't be everyone's "cup of tea," (oh come on, you know I had to say it), but it will satisfy the reader who wants to be immersed into another world.

Fiona lives in the Whitechapel district of London in the 1880s, at a time when Jack the Ripper stalked the streets. She's a tea packer at Burton's Tea Company, helping her parents support a family of six.

Fiona has a dream that sustains her. She and her childhood sweetheart, Joe Bristow, are saving their money to buy their own grocery. But a series of events takes almost everything and everyone away from her: Joe, both parents, her younger brother Charlie and her infant sister. Now she must run for her life with her youngest brother, Seamie.

She and Seamie get to America, thanks to some timely intervention by a young aristocrat/artist, and they seek out their uncle Michael, allegedly a successful grocer. She finds him, only to discover he's a drunken wreck of a widower with his store perilously close to foreclosure. Not one to lie down and die, Fiona rolls up her sleeves and gets to work.

With a steadily growing number of friends and allies, Fiona makes a success of the store; Michael sobers up; and Fiona eventually becomes a tea merchant and opens a tea room. As she accomplishes each task she takes on, Fiona stays focused on her ultimate goal: wreaking revenge on Mr. Burton, the owner of Burton's Tea and the man mostly responsible for destroying her family.

Most of the characters are appealing, and the reader's sympathy is with Fiona from start to finish. Fiona appears to have more than her share of luck, but at the same time, she seems to make most of her luck, working hard to make her dreams come true.

In spite of the drama inherent in the plot, such as Jack the Ripper or the evil Mr. Burton and his hired thugs, much of the dramatic tension comes from Joe's attempts to find Fiona and the "near misses" that hold off their reunion. Donnelly's descriptions are evocative and draw in the reader, appealing to all the senses. The plot wraps up gracefully with some surprises.

Some readers may find the novel overstuffed, with a relatively predictable plot that doesn't say anything new. It probably could have withstood some editing, but on the other hand, there is little that is inessential to the story. Other readers, however, will find The Tea Rose to be just the ticket for a rainy afternoon, curled up on the couch with blanket and a mug of -- what else? -- good hot tea.

review by
Donna Scanlon

24 May 2008

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