With a name like The Tea Rose, it was probably inevitable that I would end up buying this book at some point. Such titles are as seductive to me as cheese is to a mouse. In the event, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it did manage to make me forget all about my daily chores and to keep me in pyjamas for thirty-six straight hours, reading…
It is 1888. Seventeen-year-old Fiona Finnegan, the eldest daughter of an Irish dock-worker in London, is beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious, and she has no intention of slaving away at William Burton’s tea factory her whole life long. She and her childhood sweetheart, Joe, are saving up to get married and buy their own shop. Life is hard for the Finnegans and for every other family living in Whitechapel, but Fiona puts her faith in her dreams and in Joe’s affection.
Whitechapel is a dangerous place to live in, however: on top of the usual crew of petty criminals and extortionists, a savage new murderer known as Jack the Ripper is on the loose, baffling the police and horrifying people with his gruesome crimes. The dock-workers are threatening to unionize in protest at their harsh work conditions and low wages, while their wives worry about starving outright should the strike outlast their savings. And William Burton, with his implacable black eyes and chilling methods of getting what he wants, grows more menacing by the day.
Then, overnight, Fiona’s world is changed forever when her father is killed in a freak accident. Almost at the same time, she must say goodbye to Joe and all their dreams of a life together, when he walks straight into the trap laid for him by his boss’s daughter, who has had her eye on him for years. When tragedy strikes again and Fiona is left an orphan, it takes all her courage not to succumb to her grief. And then, one night, she discovers that her father was murdered in cold blood. Forced to flee for her life, she turns to the only person she can think of, her uncle in New York, and books a passage to America, vowing to return one day and avenge her father’s death.
On the way, she makes the acquaintance of Nicholas Soames, a nobleman’s son with a passion for French Impressionist painting, who is struggling with his own share of grief and dark secrets. The unlikely pair forms a deep and loyal friendship, which will last, through poverty, illness, and scandal, for more than a decade. With Nicholas by her side, Fiona slowly rebuilds her life, rising to become the wealthy and successful owner of America’s leading tea emporium. But Fiona cannot forget Joe or her father’s murder, and the day finally comes when she can return to London and settle accounts…
Featuring a strong and likeable heroine and an endearing cast of supporting characters, The Tea Rose vividly evokes the hardships of Cockney London, the hustle and bustle of New York, and one woman’s determined struggle to rise above poverty, grief, and injustice. It also paints a convincing – and bone chilling! – portrait of the madman who called himself Jack the Ripper: as he and Fiona unwittingly keep crossing paths and his identity slowly becomes clearer, mounting horror and suspense keep the reader in thrall until the very end. The ultimate confrontation between the two protagonists, in a dilapidated and deserted warehouse by the Thames, results in an explosion, whose shock waves – both literal and figurative – run the length and breadth of London. In short, The Tea Rose combines all the ingredients of a family saga, a historical romance, and a gripping crime thriller, and though the suspense nearly killed me several times, I enjoyed it very much.
© Florence Berlioz 2011