Fiction: “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

Tea RoseAs 2017 continued onward in its quick, Tower-of-Terror-esque descent into madness, I found myself turning more and more often to escapism. I stopped watching TV, for the most part, unless it was The Great British Bake Off or Bob’s Burgers for the umpteenth time. There is so much prestige TV drama I feel I should watch (American Crime Story: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, House of Cards*, any number of BBC historical dramas, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc., etc., etc. – to the point where I almost need to do a TV Alaina’s Never Seen, but I can’t even get through Project X), but I kept sinking in to things that made me feel good.

*Remember, I read this book in August, pre-The Reckoning. I’m sure as shit not starting it now. I’m gonna wait for the last season to come out and y’all else can watch it and let me know if it’s worth getting through the Spacey years to see General Antiope kick ass, but if the fifth season’s not going to live up to my expectations, it can fuck right off.

Here’s how bad the state of the nation is when it comes to Alaina’s Entertainment Habits (please note, this is a very low factor in deciding the overall state of our nation, which is, to put bluntly, fucked): I started to rewatch 30 Rock, but I have fallen out of love with Jack Donaghy, because now when I see Alec Baldwin all I can think of is this –

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and it makes me sad. And a little nauseated.

SPEAKING OF SAD AND NAUSEATED, I was watching Two Weeks’ Notice (do NOT fucking tell me the title of the movie doesn’t have an apostrophe, IT NEEDS TO BE THERE) and enjoying the fuck out of it like normal – I love Sandra Bullock, and Hugh Grant is a fucking delight – and everything’s going well, Sandy’s given her titular notice and Hugh is being so fucking charming, and they’re at the ball and then –

the fucking asshole president is at the buffet.

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Hand to god, I pulled the blanket I was huddled underneath over my head and sang “LA LA LA LA LA” over and over again until the scene was done.

That motherfucker ruins everything he touches. He’s like Midas – fuckin’ wishes he was Midas – but with shit.

CLEARLY, I have not stopped with being emotional. But when it came to reading, I was turning away (for the most part) from mysteries and legal thrillers. I didn’t want to read about terrible things when the world was so terrible. Yes, Silent in the Grave was a mystery, but the characters had a lightness to them that their world wasn’t awful, like it would have been if I had gone with the next Rizzoli and Isles book, or the next Sara Paretsky, or … or whatever.

(Note from the Future: I will also experience this with the new Fall television season, where my favorite shows are The Good Place and … the Dynasty reboot. THE DYNASTY REBOOT, YOU GUYS, IT’S –

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IT’S FUCKING CRAZYPANTS AND I LOVE IT)

Also crazypants? The Tea Rose.

I thought The Tea Rose was going to be a high English melodramatic historical fiction. I was right, and yet so delightfully wrong at the same time.

If you want the Dynasty reboot in book form, then my dears, The Tea Rose is the book for you.

The Tea Rose begins in Whitechapel, London, 1888. Fiona Finnegan is a maid of seventeen years, working at Burton Tea as a tea packer. That is not a euphemism. Her father, Paddy, is a dockworker at Burton’s; her mother, Kate, a laundress; and she has an older brother named Charlie, a younger brother named Seamie, and a baby sister. The Finnegans live modestly, with a tenant in the form of Roddy O’Meara, a bobbie with the London Police Force. They are a very happy family.

Fiona is being courted by Joe Bristow, a “coster” in the market who grew up down the street from the Finnegans. A “coster” is the dude who stands next to the fruit and veg cart in a farmer’s market promoting the merchandise. Fiona and Joe are truly in love, and they become engaged. Fiona is a bit jealous of Millie Peterson, the fancy daughter of a wealthy grocer conglomerate; Millie is a terrible flirt, and Millie feels that she can steal Joe out from under Fiona’s nose.

Paddy is involved in starting a union down at the docks. But Burton doesn’t like the idea of a union, and decides to kill the union leader to kill the unionization talks. THAT SHIT REALLY HAPPENED, NOT JUST IN MELODRAMATIC NOVELS, BY THE WAY. Anyway, Paddy gets pushed off an I-beam and dies in the hospital, surrounded by his family.

The remaining Finnegans now struggle to get by. Joe accepts Millie’s dad’s job offer and takes a new job in the City. When he attends the Guy Fawkes party, Millie gets him drunk and date-rapes him. When Millie tells Joe that she’s pregnant (!), he sadly breaks things off with Fiona because it’s only right and proper to marry Millie and be a father to the baby.

And then the Finnegans have to take a lower-rent room. They move deeper into Whitechapel, and Kate and the baby become sick.

Fiona’s out somewhere – I think she tried to be a barmaid during this time, to earn more money – and Kate hears a ruckus in the hall of the apartment complex. She goes out to investigate, and –

Oh, y’all know that the Jack the Ripper killings are also known as the Whitechapel Murders, right?

So Kate gets murdered by Jack the Ripper –  not because she was a “lightskirt,” but because she was a witness. Fiona’s baby sister dies soon after from malnutrition and illness. Big brother Charlie, overcome with grief, goes to fight in a boxing match to earn money; a few days later his body washes up the shores of the Thames.

It’s now just Fiona and Seamie. She moves into Roddy O’Meara’s flat for a bit. Then she gets it into her head that Burton’s owes her family a settlement for Paddy’s accidental death. She marches herself over to Burton’s and manages to get into the office, where she overhears Burton himself talking his underling, Bowler Sheehan, about how easy it was to murder that union upstart Finnegan. Fiona hides near a conveniently open safe, and when Burton and Sheehan walk into the room, Fiona accuses them of murder and then runs out.  It’s not until she escapes back to Roddy’s flat that she realizes she had a stash of £500 in her fist.

She remembers that Paddy’s brother, Michael, runs a grocery in New York City. Plan in place, she wakes up Seamie, packs up their meager belongings, leaves a vague note for Roddy, and then she and Seamie board a train for Southampton.

Guys – that’s like, only the first third of the book. We haven’t even hit peak crazypants yet.

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I know.

So in Southampton, Fiona attempts to book steerage passage to New York for her and Seamie, but the boat’s full up for two weeks. She befriends a very nice young man named Nicholas Soames, who had booked first class passage for two for himself. He offers Fiona and Seamie room in his rooms, and offers to pretend to be her husband so no one would think twice. Fiona accepts, desperate to get to New York.

The good news is that Nicholas is actually as nice as he sounds. He’s a gay man, escaping from his terrible father who disowned him. He’s also mourning the death of his lover, Henri. He’s moving to New York to open an art gallery (Henri was an artist), and he grows to platonically love Fiona and she him. He’s a genuinely nice guy, you guys! It’s so rare but also very sweet!

[This is probably where you guys are going, “Hey, Alaina, how are you able to remember Nick’s lover’s name? Haven’t you spent the last few book reviews going ‘Man, I suck for not taking notes, this blows, sorry ‘bout this shitty review’?” YOU GUYS – I TOOK NOTES FOR THIS ONE

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I win.]

Fiona et. al. get through customs and Fiona finds her cousin Michael.

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Michael is mourning the loss of his wife through the classic coping mechanism of “drinking all of his problems away and not doing a great job of it.” His grocery has been foreclosed upon, his baby daughter is in the care of the upstairs neighbor, and he spends nearly every waking moment at the pub. It’s … it’s not a great look. Fiona takes her anger out on Michael’s flat, cleaning it from top to bottom and basically making it habitable again. Then she marches over to the bank and asks for a loan to reopen the grocery. She has great ideas, namely coupons and advertisements, but the bank manager thinks her ideas are stupid because they’re coming from a female mouth, and he dismisses her.

But! A millionaire entrepreneur and subway constructor (as in the first subway system, not like a Subway™ franchisee) William McClane overhears Fiona’s great ideas, and when she leaves the bank manager’s office, he goes in, tells the bank to give her the loan, and then goes out and give Fiona the good news.

[My headcanon (because I did not write down that part of the book) is that McClane goes into the office and, like Goldfinger in Goldfinger after Oddjob hat-slices the head off the statute, says something like “I own the bank.”

My headcanon continues that William McClane is like, the great-great-grandfather of John McClane, and John’s dad probably ruined the company and lost all sorts of money which is why his son becomes a cop.]

The grocery store is open and it’s a big hit. I think McClane put an advertisement in the local paper, unbeknownst to Fiona? He did something, and he also shows up after opening night and takes her out on a date. They begin to court, and it’s cute, but Fiona realizes she still isn’t over Joe.

Oh, what’s going on with Joe? Because like a true soap opera, there are multiple plots. Joe never falls in love with Millie. And when he learns that Fiona has disappeared, he tries to figure out where she went, with the help of Roddy O’Meara. When Millie finds out, she gets super jealous, and her anger causes the baby to be born stillborn. I know. When the baby dies, Millie’s father forces Joe to divorce Millie and fires him from the Peterson’s grocery business.

Back to Fiona. She decides that, in an attempt to expand her business, she’s going to develop a tea to sell. She could recognize strains of tea from her days packing it at Burton’s (not a euphemism), and she finds a special tea blender and starts her own proprietary brand, which she calls TasTea.

Let me take a second here and get something off my chest. I fucking hate that name. There is no reason to have that second T capitalized. It looks like shit. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

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Having ranted, I am unable to come up with a better name, I just hate it.

Moving on. TasTea becomes a hit, and she expands her brand, adding new scents and flavors to the line. The tea becomes such a hit, she returns the grocery to (now sober) Michael’s responsibility and sets off to open a series of tea rooms. She purchases a beautiful, old yet rundown building and convinces the owner to sell the property to her, and she begins to fix it up to turn it into the first tea room, named The Tea Rose. Also, there’s room for an art gallery on the second floor, because she and Nicholas are still very good friends.

Meanwhile, she and William McClane have grown very close, and William proposes marriage. She accepts, even though a part of her is still in love with Joe. (Fiona also doesn’t know about Millie’s baby or Joe’s divorce.) William also expects that, once they’re married, she’ll find someone else to run her tea empire so she can move upstate with him and be a quiet married lady with no aspirations. That whole thing makes Fiona choke, but she doesn’t come right out and laugh in his face.

Because William’s son, Will Jr., is about to pull some shenanigans! (Oh, right, William McClane is a widower with a couple of adult children. He’s a lot older than Fiona, but it doesn’t really read.) Will Jr. has Congressional aspirations, and he’s worried what will happen to his career if his dad marries again and this time, to the merchant class. And yes, when I picture Will Jr., I see Paul Ryan at his utmost smarmiest. I hate my head sometimes.

So Will Jr. orchestrates a scandal – he learns that Nicholas sometimes goes to what we would today call gay bars, and organizes a raid, only to see Nicholas arrested. Fiona learns of Nicholas’s arrest, and at his hearing, pretends to be his fiancée so he’ll be cleared of the homosexuality charge. The judge, who is also Will Jr.’s best friend says, “okay, Nick can go, but you have to come back tomorrow and I’ll marry the two of you in my courtroom. If you don’t, I’ll know you’re lying and also that he’s gay, so you’ll both go to jail. Different jails.”

Nick protests, but doesn’t say that’s the stupidest thing a judge has ever done in a courtroom, but only because he didn’t have time to look up the entire history of the court system. Fiona agrees, because how else is she going to save her best friend? This solves everyone’s problems: Will Jr. can now successfully run for Congress because obviously Will Sr. can’t be a bigamist, Nick is safe, and Fiona can continue to grow her empire, unimpeded by a stupid man.

Nick does offer the marriage to be in name only, so Fiona might be able to find someone to love her physically. Fiona won’t hear of it, so they settle into a perfectly platonic marriage.

Meanwhile, what about Joe?? Joe took a small loan from his parents and started a door-to-door vegetable delivery service, so cooks and servants don’t have to spend an entire day to go to the market and stock up on produce that will go bad quickly. His business takes off, and over the years, he has turned it into a very successful high-end grocery store chain – like Whole Foods, but less snobby.

Years pass.

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Fiona’s business has also grown, and she’s responsible for numerous offshoots of **uuggghhh** TasTea. She’s also been investing a good amount of her profits into Burton’s Tea stock shares, in the hopes of becoming majority shareholder and then shutting Burton’s down as revenge for herself and her family.

Nicholas has been … okay. Because I probably didn’t mention it before, he is a gay man. And this is the 1890s. And while HIV/AIDS wasn’t a thing back then, syphilis sure was. In what is undoubtedly the saddest but also one of the loveliest moments in the entire novel (yes, I … I may have teared up, I’M NOT MAD AT ME), Nicholas dies.

Fiona goes over Nicholas’s will to discover … Nick was in line to a dukedom. Or would have been, if his father hadn’t disowned him. But also, Nick owned 30% of Burton Tea’s remaining shares! Which puts her over the majority!

(There’s a minor subplot about how Burton’s was beginning to fail and so in an effort to raise cash, Burton sold a portion of his personal shares to Nick’s Dad, who hid it in an account under Nick’s name… and now they’re the property of Fiona and they can’t get it back neener neener neener, but Nick’s Dad sues Fiona anyway oh this will be bad)

Fiona takes the next boat to London to force Nick’s Dad to drop his suit. With Roddy’s help, Nick’s Dad allows Fiona to retain the shares. (No, I didn’t write down what happened, it’s like the one thing I didn’t write down, leave me alone, read the book to find out).

Fiona marches over to Burton Tea, where there’s a shareholder’s meeting going on. Perfect timing, Fiona! She reveals herself as the majority shareholder and new owner of Burton’s. Burton goes mad and attacks her with a penknife. Roddy and Fiona’s lawyer attempts to catch him, but he runs away.

Fiona heals after a spell in hospital, moves into a house in London and one day, goes to visit the family cemetery. On her way back, she walks to the Thames and starts skipping stones, like she used to when she was a carefree girl in love with Joe. BUT JOE’S ALSO THERE! They meet again for the first time in over ten years, and they learn that Joe’s not married to Millie, and Fiona’s no longer married to Nicholas, and they immediately reconnect and admit that they love each other still, and become engaged again.

And the book still isn’t over! But it almost is, so I’m going to leave the finale to your reading pleasure.

The book is long. Goodreads says it’s almost 700 pages. So, 3,000-word long review aside, I know I left some stuff out. But I wouldn’t be a good reviewer (I mean, I’m not anyway, but you know what I mean) if I didn’t point out a couple of places that stood out to me.

There’s a point in the beginning of the book (heh, beginning, this thing I’m going to quote occurred on p. 106) where Joe is living in the City and Fiona hasn’t left London yet, but they’re separated, and this happens:

[Joe] rose from his chair, stoked the coals, and walked to the loo to wash up. He had to get some sleep. As he dried his face, he looked out of the bathroom window. The London sky was remarkably clear. Stars shown against the black night. He stared at one twinkling brightly. Did the same star shine down on her? he wondered. Was she maybe looking at it out of her window and thinking of him? He told the star he loved her, he told it to watch over her and keep her safe.  [p. 106]

Whoops, I mean this happens. (Sorry not sorry about the earworm, folks)

And then there’s this:

Nick had been stuffing himself with steamed mussels, sopping up their garlicky broth with hunks of crusty bread. [p. 188]

Dear god, do I love steamed mussels. I was reading this paragraph while on the bike at the gym, and I almost cried because all I could taste in my mouth were those little, garlic, winey morsels and I still had like twenty minutes to go and nowhere to get those mussels.

Now, Nick is eating those mussels in Paris, and just above that line, the narrator mentions Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and for about a second I thought that Nick’s Henri was actually Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and I stopped pedaling the bike and did this:

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This book has everything: tea, Jack the Ripper, syphilis, and high melodrama. It’s great to take your mind off the shitshow that’s currently playing on our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

And guess what? It’s a trilogy.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock

Grade for The Tea Rose: 3.5 stars

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