Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

It's not often that a book that was so highly recommended to me by a good friend, and with such a high rating on Goodreads (4.15 out of 5 at the moment I hit "Publish" on this post), falls so flat for me. But I guess The Tea Rose just wasn't my *ahem* cup of tea.

Full disclosure: I only read the first 150 or so pages of this 600+ page book.  I've been berated before for posting a review about a book I hadn't finished, but really, if the first 150 pages just weren't doing it for me, how likely is it that the next 500 would change my mind?  Just how many hours am I obligated to invest in a book I don't like before I can decide that enough is enough?  And why on earth should that negate my opinion about the part I actually read? But I digress...

I'm having trouble putting my finger on why I just couldn't get into the story or the characters.  Historical fiction is usually a genre I enjoy, but this time the characters seemed a bit too modern in their speech patterns, mannerisms, reactions.  And even when they were acting in a period-appropriate way, it came across as if the author was just trying too hard.  For example, when describing a meal time, Ms. Donnelly was careful to point out in an expository aside that the menfolk got larger portions than the women, and that all the meat in the meal went to the men as well, while the women and children made do with the gravy or broth and vegetables, but it didn't even occur to the women to object because that's just how things were done.  But instead of providing context and serving as background to the world of the story, it acted as a commentary on the time and pulled me out of the world rather than drawing me in.

Another factor: I'm just not a fan of sex scenes and there were several in the first 150 pages.  Of course I know people had sex in the 19th century.  There were prostitutes and extramarital affairs and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant and babies were born out of wedlock, I know, but I don't want to read about gasping breaths and throbbing this or aching that.  Again, they way they were described just seemed so anachronistic.

Life in London in the late 1800s was hard, there's no dispute there.  But Ms. Donnelly was determined to fit every possible contemporary event into the story.  It's such an easy way to "set the scene" and ramp up the devastating emotional impact. So we have Jack the Ripper, the creation of unions on the docks and the violence that surrounded that, death by tuberculosis, the threat of workhouses, and dozens of others.  And I think that she exerted so much of her energy on the "historical" aspect of the genre that the "fiction" part, especially her characterizations, suffered as a result. Fiona, Joe, Nicholas, all of the characters were largely one-dimensional cut-outs, either good or evil with nothing in between. And the plot suffers, too.  It's pretty far-fetched for two impoverished Brits to work their way out of poverty into relative wealth in an incredibly short time.  Melodramatic soap operas definitely have their fans, and I'll even admit to enjoying a period soap opera or two (Hello, Downton Abbey!) but this one just fell flat for me.

This was Ms. Donnelly's first novel, published in 2002, and she's written several more successful stories since this one, including two sequels to The Tea Rose.  So I'm sure she's honed her craft and improved on the weaknesses of this book.  But I'm not interested enough to actually find out for myself.

The Tea Rose
by Jennifer Donnelly
ISBN: 9780312288358
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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