For a story with as many plot twists and turns as Jennifer Donnelly’s THE TEA ROSE, it is surprising that it takes so long to start the engine of the story. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
THE TEA ROSE is a compelling, well-written novel. It is such a page-turner (once the story gets going), that it enthralled me, keeping me up until 4 am! Ms Donnelly has created memorable protagonists in Joe and Fiona. She has also made her many minor characters vivid and believable. The descriptions are historically grounded and add texture to the novel. It was a pleasure to immerse oneself in the details of Whitechapel, of Fiona’s job at the tea factory, of her mother cooking and doing the laundry.
Where I felt the book was weak was at the beginning. The prologue made little sense, because it is an example of a hook that doesn’t hook. Or of a hook that isn’t relevant. In the Prologue we meet Polly, a Whitechapel whore, who meets a nasty end. After that, we switch to Chapter One, and meet Fiona in her job at the tea factory. The significance of what happened to Polly doesn’t become apparent until well into Chapter One, and then it didn’t resonate because Polly is a complete stranger to Fiona and her family.
The novel actually begins on page 129, 18% of the way into the story, with the death of Fiona’s father. To me, that is the actual hook, because everything in the story grows from that event. All the details of Fiona’s job, her family, her relationship with Joe, her visit to the West End to visit Joe, all of these things could have been slipped into the narrative afterwards to create the world that vanished when Fiona’s da died. Being forced to wade through nine chapters of detail, even thought the details was beautifully rendered, made the beginning much less strong than it should have been. It’s as if we saw the scaffolding of how Ms. Donnelly wrote her way into the story, but that scaffolding hadn’t been removed. Given that this book was published under the imprint of St. Martin’s Griffin and not self-published, it’s surprising that a stronger editorial hand wasn’t employed. 3.5 stars.