The Tea Rose

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Year: 2003

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East London, 1888 – a city apart. A place of shadow and light where thieves, whores and dreamers mingle, where children play in the cobbled streets by day and a killer stalks at night. Where shining hopes meet the darkest truths.

Here, by the whispering waters of the Thames, a bright, defiant young woman dares to dream of a life beyond tumbledown wharves, gaslit alleys, and the grim and crumbling dwellings of the poor.

The Story

Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, hopes to own a shop one day, together with her lifelong love, Joe Bristow, a costermonger’s son. With nothing but their faith in each other to spur them on, Fiona and Joe struggle, save and sacrifice to achieve their dreams.

But Fiona’s plans are shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man force her to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit – and the ghosts of her past – propel her rise from a modest West Side shop front to the top of Manhattan’s tea trade.

  • "This is a splendid, heartwarming novel of pain, struggle, decency, triumph -- and just what we need in these times. "

    Frank McCourtAuthor of ANGELA'S ASHES
  • "Donnelly indulges in delightfully straightforward storytelling in this comfortably overstuffed novel...the novel's lively plotting, big cast of warmly drawn characters and long-deferred romantic denouement make this a ripping yarn."

    Publisher's Weekly 
  • "Steeped in melodrama, revenge and a maddeningly star-crossed romance, The Tea Rose is a fine yarn ... Bottom line: Guilty pleasure."

    People Magazine 

Fiona’s old ghosts do not rest quietly, however, and to silence them, she must venture back to the London of her childhood, where a deadly confrontation with her past becomes the key to her future.

The Tea Rose is a towering old-fashioned story, imbued with a modern sensibility, of a family’s destruction, of murder and revenge, of love lost and won again, and of one determined woman’s quest to survive and triumph.

Authentic and moving, The Tea Rose is an unforgettable novel.

The Inspiration

Funny, isn’t it, how most people who believe in reincarnation are convinced they were once queens and kings, priestesses, generals, artists and shamans?

I’m not really sure if I believe in reincarnation. Maybe a little bit. I am sure about one thing though: if I did live a previous life, I was no queen. I was a slum dweller.

The only time in my life I ever had an “I’ve been here before” feeling was when I lived in London and my landlord, Clark, took me to the Brick Lane market in Whitechapel. Clark loved antiques. He had a Model A Ford. I thought then that it was just a funny old relic, but now I know it was really a time machine.

We drove east from Notting Hill early one Sunday morning. This was about sixteen years ago. Long before Oasis, Madge and Guy, and the whole Cool Britannia thing. Notting Hill wasn’t tony then. And East London? It was totally off the map. There were no wine bars or posh hotels. No multi-million dollar flats or art galleries. There were lots of crumbling houses, though. And dark, cobbled alleys. There were smoky pubs, boarded-up warehouses, and silent, brooding wharves.

I remember with amazing clarity how the charming, pastel houses of the Portobello Road became the squat, sooty brick dwellings of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. I’d read about this area; it was notorious. It was Jack the Ripper’s London. General Booth’s London. Annie Besant’s and Ben Tillet’s London. The Kray brothers’ London. It was a worker’s London, where dockers, factory hands, builders, seamen, and costers lived. The smallness and plainness of the houses spoke of hard lives and meager resources. They were strangely comforting in their bleakness. Familiar, inevitable and bittersweet. Seeing them felt like coming home. I’ve never fully understood why.

Clark pulled up just before a rusted railway overpass. As he cut the engine, I heard music. We walked under the bridge. Large iron doors had been unlocked, revealing rooms built into the structure of the bridge itself. They were filled with market people selling all manner of goods: costume jewelry, packets of custard mix, bags of candy, old shoes. On our way back to the street, I noticed a group of men standing outside the doors. They quietly passed pieces of gold jewelry back and forth — thick bracelets, clunky sovereign rings — nodding, talking, occasionally dipping a hand into a pocket to fish for a loupe or a thick wad of notes.

When we emerged on the other side of the bridge, I discovered the source of the music. Big, burly costermongers were singing the praises of their fruits and vegetables. They smiled and winked as they did, their voices rising in competition. Watching them, I felt as if I’d left modern day London and stumbled into the same city that Johnson, Hogarth and Dickens knew. We bought some clementines and walked on, passing in and out of musty warehouses, stalls, sheds and old stables. Picking up trinkets. Tripping on cobbles. Sampling apple fritters, jellied eels, pickled whelks. I found a rhinestone necklace for a pound. A tweed jacket for two. Clark found a toilet.

I found something else that day, too — inspiration.

East London was a shadow city to the western metropolis, a place to soothe a darker heart. It was honest and raw and in its own hard way, breathtakingly lovely. I was utterly captivated. I fell deeply in love with it and knew that I wanted to write about the place and its people. I made many, many trips back, spending countless hours in the narrow streets of Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Wapping, and Limehouse doing research and storing up sights, sounds and impressions for what would become The Tea Rose.

This love affair between me and East London has endured even though we don’t get to see each other much anymore. Even though Wapping’s High Street has been developed and there’s a Starbucks across from the Spitalfields Market. Even though so many of the ruined, quiet places that I loved are no longer ruined or quiet.

I still get a feeling of having crossed over some tangible boundary when I get off the tube at the Liverpool Street Station, though. I can still lose myself in the winding lanes, and I still feel distinctly uneasy walking down Hanbury Street after nightfall.

I hope I always do.

I was born in a suburb of New York City. But when I’m in the East End of London, I’m home.

Click for an excerpt of The Tea Rose.

Buy The Tea Rose from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookseller.

18 comments

  1. Sofie Devriendt says:

    I Don’t have read many books that Spoke to me, like the rose trilogy. I have read And reread all of them like every possible holiday. When i open the books, it feels like home. It was rather weird what you Said about reincarnation And people believing they were kings of Queens. If i believe, i am quite convinced i was a working lady 😉 in the eastends of something.
    My life has little resemblance with the lives of your female main characters but i do feel powerless sometimes. Or dominated by men or life’s ways (just or not).
    Never did i love books more than the rose trilogy.

    I didn’t read them in english actually yet. Maybe i Should do that 🙂 i am dutch speaking. Oh well, zou excuse Would do to just step a moment Back into the finnagans World.
    Thank you so much!

    Now i’m going to explore your website Some more.

    • Jennifer Evans says:

      I agree with you! I always say that I feel that I lived in London in another life even though that does not coincide with my beliefs. I have a strong physical reaction when I see pictures of London. I was there once as a 17 year old and my goal is to go back at my 40th birthday.

      One of the interesting things is that my maiden name is Lackey and now my married name is Evans…

  2. Mary says:

    Pictures are great! The one of the stairs ok me right back to the story of Fiona and Jack sitting there. Loved this trilogy.

  3. Tara Cox says:

    I just can not tell you how much I truly love these books! Love the pictures, it’s like coming home after a long time away. I may need to pull the one that didn’t get lost in a move across country out of the bookcase and revisit my friends.

  4. Tiffany says:

    This was the first book series I read (in high school, but I was always a mature soul) that really made me feel. I wept with Fiona when she was betrayed, and my heart pounded during all the tense moments especially as she uncovered the truth about her father, I cried at her family’s plight (trying not to hint at spoilers). Later in the trilogy, I loved exploring the lives of the relatives, and fell in love with these people you created. I thank you for helping me when I was lost and depressed in high school. Reading, especially this trilogy, brought light to my life in such a meaningful way. I re-read this trilogy once every two years or so and it just brings me back, and is just as beautiful each time around. I love seeing the actual places that inspired this story.

  5. Tracey Olson says:

    What great photos! They look EXACTLY like they did in my mind’s eye while reading this fabulous series. Thank you for sharing! It brings me right back there. I miss those characters.

  6. Penny Vandoros says:

    I was given Tea Rose as a gift by a dear friend & I fell in love with all the characters and their lives so much that both Winter & Wild Rose were very soon on my bookshelf. I couldn’t stop there as for the next couple of years I bought the trilogy as gifts for many of my friends, both in Greek & English!! I love them and will cherish them forever 💗🌹

  7. frances h carlton says:

    I just finished the Tea Rose ,Its the 1st book I have read of yours.It was wonderful ,a lot like Woman of Substance.I have orderd more of your books,love them

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Thank you, Frances! I LOVED A Woman of Substance — in fact, that book was an inspiration for the whole Rose series. Barbara Taylor Bradford herself read the Winter Rose (book two in the series) and said this about it:
      “I loved this book. It is truly seductive, hard to put down, filled with mystery, secret passions, unique locations, and a most engaging heroine.”
      You can imagine how thrilled and honored I was to read that!!

  8. Cate says:

    Hi, Mrs. Donnelly!
    First, I just wanted to let you know how much I admire you and your work. Your Tea Rose series truly changed my life. I have always loved to read but I have never been so captivated by a story and it’s characters than I am with this series. At this point I’m convinced you must be magic!
    I know you have mentioned in the past that the rights to the series have been sold to possibly become a movie. I was wondering if you had any more updates on that? One of my favorite things about reading is being able to imagine the scenes in my own mind, but being able to see what the author imagined is something I always wonder about.
    Until then, I can’t wait to get my hands on your next book! Thank you for sharing your beautiful words and talent. They have given me a new happy place to escape to.

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Aww, what a sweet note — it makes my day. Thank you! 😘 I WISH I had an update on the Tea Rose film option, but I’m in a wait-and-see mode just like you! I promise I will keep you posted — if you haven’t signed up for my mailing list (there’s a signup form on my homepage), you might want to. I’ll definitely send out a note to that list as soon as I have any news!

  9. Lisa-Marie Pauletich says:

    Jennifer Donnelly the Rose Trilogy is magical. I’m currently two thirds of the way through the winter rose and I cannot put it down. Your stories are so captivating, I feel as though I’m actually there and so relatable I see parts of myself in Fiona and India. The story is so well written that I feel like it has encouraged me to work on my strengths and weaknesses and to continue to learn from my mistakes just as Fiona and India have. It has reminded me that everyone you meet has a story and from everyone you meet you can learn something new. There is so much wisdom in this book I feel like I has taught me more than my parents ever did or might ever know. It’s a reminder that there is still so much good in the world and has thus encouraged me to want to be a better person and help any one I can every day. I love the selflessness, intelligence, intuition and grit of India and Fiona and I’m greatful to have gotten to know them and learn from them and I’m only two thirds of the way through the second book! So thank you Jennifer, I’m not one to ever know what to say or how to explain something out loud but through your books I feel like my life has new meaning, so thank you.

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Wow, Lisa-Marie, what an amazing thing to hear! The Tea Rose Saga came from deep within my own heart, and it means so much to know that it touched yours.
      This sort of note gives me the strength and energy to keep writing — thank you!! 😘

  10. Marzana says:

    I read The Tea Rose trilogy a few years ago. I love historical fiction but The Tea Rose will always be special to me because I have lived in Tower Hamlets my whole life. All the streets and areas you mention are part of my story too and The Tea Rose evokes the old east end for me before gentrification took hold. Thank you for this lovely story, I plan to reread the series again over Christmas when the weather makes the past more vivid in this area. Please write another series like this!

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Yes, I remember the pre-gentrified East End very well — it’s what inspired the series! I don’t know when I’ll write another one, but I do hope that one day before too long the Rose Trilogy will make it onto the screen!

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