Title: The Winter Rose
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Published: 2008, Hyperion
Category: Historical Fiction
In the name of full disclosure, I feel like I have to tell you all that I got this book as a free review copy. It's probably silly. I doubt you care, but I'm compelled to tell you anyway. I usually refuse all offers of ARCs and review copies because my TBR anxiety is bad enough without adding a bunch of stuff that I'm not 100% sure I want to read but that I will feel obligated to review. I said yes to this book because I'd already heard great things about it (from Marg mostly). But I'll still be completely honest in my review, I promise. :)
India Selwyn Jones graduates from the London Medical School for Women in the year 1900 (btw, I couldn't believe that women were doctors this early, but they totally were--so cool). Full of rather naive ideas about how she can help the poor of London, she takes a job in a clinic in Whitechapel. Her interactions with her patients show her that the state of things among the poor are much worse than she had ever imagined, especially among women and children, and she begins to dream of founding a free clinic for women. Meanwhile, her aristocratic fiance, Freddie, is pushing her to set a date, though India is beginning to have doubts about her feelings and his reasons for marrying. One reason for these doubts is her meeting Sid Malone, a notorious gangster and the head of an organized crime ring. Though Sid is a criminal, he's also a bit of a Robin Hood, and his and India's shared efforts to help the destitute bring them together. But can a mobster and an aristocratic doctor find a way to be together?
Okay, that synopsis is my attempt to sum up an EPIC book without going on forever and ever. But this is one fat, looong, epic historical novel of a kind that is hard to find these days but which I have always loved. PW's review described it as "overstuffed," which I think is a very good adjective, though I don't mean that in a bad way. Huge cast of characters, long-ish time frame, great big family saga. And for those people who also like that kind of book, I highly recommend this one.
I was completely enthralled. Really. I'd come home from work and sit down with it "just for a few minutes" before I started on my evening to-do list. Seven hours later I'm still frantically reading, hating the fact that my life is getting in the way of finishing this book. The characters are lovable, the villain wonderfully hateful, the action very dramatic. I found both India and Sid really compelling characters and their forbidden, impossible, passionate love just fabulous (I could hear Tony and Maria crooning, "There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us" in my head--sniff, sniff). The historical details were so well done that I had a really vivid visual for everything. And the very progressive political elements (down with the nobs!! up with the worker!!) were heart-wrenchingly uplifting.
The reason this book doesn't get a higher grade is the last bit. I was completely loving it until page 500 or so, and then I started to get frustrated. When the action moved to Africa, the slew of incredibly unbelievable coincidences and endless trials and tribulations began to wear on me. In the same way that I couldn't read the later books in the Outlander series, I just thought, "What else could possibly happen to these poor people??" I sort of wish that the whole thing had wrapped up in London. But, the conclusion (when we finally got there) was very satisfying.
This is the second book in a trilogy. The first, The Tea Rose, centers around Fiona, Sid's sister (Fiona and her husband also appear throughout this book). I have already bought it. And we seem to be set up for the final book about Fiona and Sid's little brother, Seamie.
I will leave you with this quote from Mrs. Moscowitz, the hilarious, bossy mother of India's Jewish coworker and one of my favorite characters:
"God gives the nuts; He doesn't crack them."