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Book Review: The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

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Is it historical fiction or historical romance? Yes. The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly is a jam-packed combination of both with a healthy dose of adventure. The book releases August 2, 2011 by Hyperion.

Called by The Washington Post Book World as “a master of pacing and plot,” Donnelly paints with a vivid palette of espionage, blackmail, steamy romance, exotic places, women’s suffrage, and politics. She is a born storyteller.

Drink mint tea in a Bedouin tent after desert wanderings sustained only by water, dates, and courage; ride an omnibus as it belches and careens over London’s cobblestone streets, and watch a photo shoot of an avant-garde composer in Paris as the sun sets. Vivid description flows through this narrative as it travels from 1914 London to the mountains of Nepal and the Arabian Desert.

We are reunited with old friends Fiona and Joe Bristow, Sid Malone and his wife, Dr. India Selwyn Jones. Highlighted are Seamie Finnegan, famous polar explorer and Ella Alden, the “wild rose” and apparent heroine. Ella photographs and maps the Himalayas with a prosthetic leg. Seamie can’t decide what woman he loves and winds up a captain in the British navy. Handsome Max von Brandt, a German mountaineer who toys with women for his own advantage, is a colorful, man-you-love-to-hate character. Maud Selwyn Jones, a scandalous lady novelist, is married to one man and mistress to another.

Extensive period detail entrenches us in the historical setting. After seventy pages of the main characters’ back stories from The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose, the book takes off at a fast clip. Women seek equal rights in England. Climbers scale mountains in Nepal. Anxious people wait for news of their loved ones at war. Love, lust, jealousy, deception and action-packed adventure intertwine. World War I looms before us. The Dali Lama, Ernest Shackleton, Lawrence of Arabia, and Winston Churchill make appearances.

Author Jennifer Donnelly lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. A lover of Ulysses by James Joyce, she reads widely and considers research more of an art than a science. Her recently published Revolution won the American Booksellers Young Adult Book of the Year and the Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Books. A Northern Light, her coming of age book, received numerous awards. Donnelly’s versatility is clear in her creation of The Rose Trilogy.

The stories from The Tea Rose (2002) and The Winter Rose (2008) are intertwined to reacquaint us with characters from the previous novels. Reading the other books in the trilogy will enhance your enjoyment of The Wild Rose, but in case you haven’t, Donnelly fills us in on sufficient background. That attempt proves a bit mind-boggling because of the myriad of characters and sub-plots it produces. This reader was sad that minor roles are given to some of the characters I came to love in the first two books.

The novel does yield a refreshing dose of adventure not found in the first part of the trilogy. Their appeal lies in Donnelly’s strong, never-give-up female characters, Fiona and India. That element is curiously lacking in The Wild Rose. Here, the author chooses a different tack.

A third book in any trilogy is tricky. Donnelly turns the tables on us by giving her main characters a surprising twist. In The Wild Rose, main characters Willa and Seamie are unlikable, self-absorbed people. Driven Willa uses any quest (mountain, man, or fame) as a coping mechanism for her inability to accept her lost limb. When Seamie marries Jenny we are hopeful, but he soon becomes devoid of backbone or honor until the end of the book. Not villains, Willa and Seamie are simply flawed humans clawing their way out of their misery. Some readers may balk at this abrupt change in writing technique. This reviewer found it refreshing. Irritating characters can be more interesting than protagonists. Changing things up a bit is a bold author’s prerogative.

Some of the book’s themes converge on our current world state, elevating the book’s relevance. Political intricacies, horrors of war, drug abuse, and economic crisis mirror many issues facing us today.

Despite the fact that I longed for more character development and fewer characters, I couldn’t put the book down. The plot twists seemed outrageous at times, but the novel is engrossing and seductive. Donnelly has a vivid imagination and it gushes through her writing.

Hyperion graciously supplied the review copy.

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About Holly Weiss

  • Jean Mickelton

    I loved the other two books in this trilogy. Now you’ve made me want to read the third. Nice review.

  • George Paxton

    Weiss’s insights to this authors objectives is accurate. I’ve used Weiss’s reviews to aid me in selecting great reading material.



  • Jan Caplan

    You seem to review a lot of book series. This is one of my favorites.I made friends with the characters in the first 2 books. Good review.

  • mary ulary

    Thanks, Jennifer for three great stories. You had me hooked with “The Tea Rose” (suggested by a former neighbor in Tivoli, my daughter Georganna) and it just keeps getting better with “The Winter Rose” And “The Wild Rose” — incredible rad that I just finished. Please keep writing. I miss Rosamunde Pilcher so I look forward to more stories from you. Thank you again.

  • Agreed, Mary. I, too, look forward to Jennifer Donnelly’s next book.