Review of THE WINTER ROSE by Jennifer Donnelly (see her website)
Hyperion, January 2008
Newly graduated doctor India Selwyn Jones wants to make a difference--working with the poor in the Whitechapel area of London. Her fiance Freddie appears supportive and she's lucky enough to secure a position with one of the few doctors who works with the poor. But her life is completely changed when master-criminal Sid Malone is injured and she ends up being the doctor responsible for bringing him back to life.
At first, their relationship is difficult. Neither can understand the other, but there's a definite attraction that won't go away no matter how hard each rationalizes their feelings. Finally, the two become lovers and dream of running away from London, from Sid's life of crime.
Freddie is currently a back-bencher in the British House of Commons, but he has big ambitions. And ambition requires two things--money and a cause. His cause is fighting crime in the same Whitechapel neighborhood where India works. His money is to come from marrying India. When he sees a chance for India to get away from him, he realizes that his prospects are in danger--and he'll do anything it takes to win her hand in marriage--with our without her loving him. As for himself, he's given up on the idea of love.
Author Jennifer Donnelly creates a powerful vision of London at the turn of the previous century. Enormous wealth and the dying aristocratic system coexist with poverty, disease, and violence. Do-gooders like India see the problem and want to help, but often their ideas are misguided and impractical. Meanwhile, the ruling class plays games of power and begrudges any progress made by the poor. For India, Sid represents more than the great love in her life--he's also her path out of the stagnation of the self-absorbed upper class. For Sid, India represents all that he cannot have.
(Warning--spoilers follow). Donnelly doesn't much nuance characters. India and Sid are good. Freddie is purely evil. Unfortunately, Freddie is also stupid--so stupid the only surprise is that he isn't caught before he is. I found it almost impossible to believe that India, having recognized that Freddie has already virtually destroyed her life and brought about the death of her great love, would decide that her only option was to marry him. If she is willing to throw herself on her family (which she had to be to get the money Freddie demanded), surely there were other men in London who would have agreed to marry her--and agreed to do so on far better terms than Freddie would offer. Even if not, thousands of women have gone abroad for a season and come back "widows." Freddie's decision to keep the clues that linked him to the murders he committed also seems difficult to believe. Even a fairly stupid criminal would realize that they could only damage him and would get rid of them. Finally, I thought Donnelly relied way too much on coincidence. The entire Africa segment of this story is one coincidence after another.
Despite its flaws, A WINTER ROSE is a strong and strangely compelling story. The issue of poverty in the midst of plenty, the responsibilities of those with much, and the often perverse nature of true love show clearly through the telescopic distance of a hundred years while they are sometimes more difficult to see up close.
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