Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Tea Rose

This isn't a review, snarky movie reviews are my deal. If you want a review, check out A Reader of Fictions review here. But I had one of the strangest experiences reading Jennifer Donnelly's The Tea Rose and I've got to write about it.

So, this book is massive. Not literally, I mean it is also fairly hefty size-wise but the story itself is vast. It covers a little over a decade and recounts everything from docker strikes in the East End of London to dining with the Astors in New York, from Jack the Ripper to stock takeovers. I don't want to give too much away, I'm going to do my best to not include too many spoilers but it will be inevitable. If you plan on reading this book you may want to wait to read this post.

So, Fiona Finnegan is an East End gal, works for the Burton Tea Factory packaging tea, lives with her parents, two brothers, a sister, and a pseudo-uncle. Her actual uncle lives in New York with his wife and new baby, he's a shopkeeper. She's in love with the boy down the street, Joe, the son of a vegetable seller. They're poor but they've got dreams. She and Joe are saving up money to open their own shop in Whitechapel and they're so close. Then all holy hell breaks loose and its ten years before they manage to reunite. Along the way half of Fiona's family is murdered and she flees the country to find relative safety with her uncle in New York, Joe accidentally gets another girl pregnant and is forced by circumstance to marry her, and all of Whitechapel is caught up in the horror of the Ripper's bloody atrocities.

It's quite exciting really and all very dramatic but that's not even what was strange. Horrible things happen, I believe that. The authoress packed a lot of tragedy into a fairly short period of time but I buy it. It never rains but it pours. It was all the nice things that I had trouble grasping. I would consider myself to be very good at suspending disbelief. I, in general, have no problems swallowing a sugar pill. I like happy endings and I don't mind skewing reality to get there. But I caught myself on many occasions reacting to this book with a scoff and a mental admonishment to the author that "that would never happen." Nothing out of the extraordinary happens but even little coincidences, necessary for furthering the plot, got to me. For instance, in her poor-girl ignorance and rush to escape the country, Fiona does not realize one books passage on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. She assumes one buys a ticket and gets on the boat, like a train. She is sorely mistaken but is saved that very morning by a first-class passenger with a double room who agrees to have her pose as his wife and travel with him in perfect safety and upper crust luxury to New York. Oh! And Fiona has her parents wedding rings for them to use as props! Perfect! Really, complete stranger? Just going to pick up a stray, obviously-on-the-run-and-you-don't-know-why woman and agree to have her tag along as your pretend wife? Fiona, of course, being the upstanding girl she is, offers to pay her half of the fare. Rich, first-class passenger then spends an equal fortune buying her new clothes so she'll fit in with the gentry. I had a hard time with that one but it was necessary to get Fiona to New York. A little improbable but okay.

Once in New York, Fiona decides to take over for her Uncle in his shop (there's a lot of back story there, just go with it) and goes to the bank, which is about to foreclose, to convince them to let her continue the loan. She is roundly denied - she's eighteen, she has no experience, and she's a woman. That seems likely. On her way out the door she meets a very nice man who tells her to wait and goes in to talk to the bank manager. When he comes back out, he's gotten her the loan. Sure, okay. Turns out the very nice man owns the bank and was impressed by her tenacity and business plan. Sure, okay. Very nice man then proceeds to check up on her and her shop, court, and eventually propose to her. Sure...that's possible, I guess? People fall in love, I believe that, and sometimes the unlikeliest of matches are made but the very nice man's infatuation with Fiona struck me as far-fetched. There's quite a bit of discursive text explaining that Fiona is not only physically beautiful but full of dreams, confidence, passion and whimsy, an irresistible mix that draws people to her and makes them care about her. Now she's starting to sound like Anne of Green Gables. And while I love all of L.M. Montgomery's works, Anne is nothing but annoyingly perfect, even in her imperfection.

There's a lot of historical tie-ins - as I mentioned, Jack the Ripper, the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers -  Fiona meets the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. The New York subway system is being built. Fiona invents tea bags. They're there for historical flavor, which I generally appreciate but they felt overbearing in this case. Name dropping, almost.

The hardest for me to accept was Joe and Fiona's individual rises to wealth and fortune. Both separately pull themselves up from the bottom rungs of the social ladder, building up vast commercial empires and climbing to prestige. At the beginning of the book they are both business minded and full of vim and determination. I can see them going far, that's not a problem. But going from Whitechapel to Fifth Avenue is huge and both of them manage it. Opportunity is out there and I know that people make something of themselves all the time but the odds of both of these individuals doing that seemed like too much. Particularly in Fiona's case, as a woman, it just seems unlikely that in the space of ten years she'd have grown the venture she did, all on her own.

Strangest of all, I loved this book. I devoured it, it's so well written and I really love the tea theme. Which is why I'm amazed that I reacted to it the way I did. I love tidy endings but this one tied up too prettily for me. Which is weird because I didn't think such a thing existed.


  1. Haha, that's a good description. I definitely agree with all of your points. I, too, thought much of it was absurd.

    But, at the same time, it was so well-written and the characters so well-drawn that I didn't even care. Yeah, Nicholas (was that his name?) shouldn't have bought her ticket and then queer eye for the straight guy'd (gal?) her wardrobe, but I loved his character so much that I am willing to overlook it.

    It's a bit of Cinderella story, only Donnelly let her make her own wealth.

    The hardest thing for me was that, all of Joe's sadness aside, I still don't think he deserves Fiona. I NEVER FORGIVE!

  2. He doesn't deserve her. It was very nice of her to forgive him but he never really atones for his mistake. I mean, he pays for it by wallowing in self pity. He never makes amends to Millie or Fiona. He barely even owns up to it. And poor Millie - despite being a thieving whore and rich, she really got the short end of the stick. I'm sure she'll marry again (hopefully more happily) but Joe was terrible to her. He just gets the happy ending without having to rise to the occasion.

  3. I agree, except for the part about Millie. She's a little b****. She knew he was taken and was trying to seduce him away; that was a dumb plan, and she deserved what she got.

    Everything is black and white in my head!