The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.
The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.
As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins. Across the ocean Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.
(3.5 stars, rounded to four)
Let’s just get this out of the way: I love Lisa See and her books, and this was no exception. While I didn’t love it as much as I loved Shanghai Girls or Dreams of Joy, I still really enjoyed it.
I loved our main character, once again. I thought she was such a great, developed protagonist and I enjoyed reading from her POV. I loved her relationship with her family and thought it was really interesting. I also really enjoyed the plot. I loved following Li-Yan throughout her life and different stages of her career as a tea master.
The plot is kind of a weird pace where months will pass in the span of one sentence. Like “We did XX. Six months later, when it was up and running…” which is fine once or twice, but it happened all the time. I wanted to know what happened in those six months! This book isn’t too long, so it wouldn’t have taken up too much space. But, at the same time, it kept me reading and didn’t bog me down with details, so I guess it didn’t really bother me all that much.
Once again, the research for this book was amazing and I felt like I learned so much. China has such a rich history and culture, and I really loved how much it was explained and explored in this book. One thing I always find interesting is how empowering yet oppressive the culture is towards women. In some ways, women have a lot of freedom in the Akha culture that they don’t have in other cultures. Akha women are given sexual freedom and liberation, which many cultures tend to frown upon (our own Western culture included), and they are involved in the tea picking and economy of the village. However, men are still way more valued than women and have all the power over women. It’s just interesting to me.
My biggest criticism of this book is that it kind of felt like two books that didn’t quite mesh, and reading the acknowledgements, I think See started with a different book in mind. She talks about how she wanted to write about the One Child policy and adoption of Chinese girls, which is present in this book, but not until much later and only very briefly. The book is significantly more focused on Li-Yan, tea, and her journey, with only little comments near the end about adoption and the One Child policy.
It feels like See started writing a book on the One Child policy, learned a lot about tea picking, got caught up in that, and let the One Child part fall through. I think it would have worked better if there were actual chapters from Haley’s perspective rather than the little snippets of her diary or essays or whatnot, or if her plot line had been removed altogether. It just made the book feel a little disjointed, though I did enjoy those bits.
So all in all, I highly recommend this book if you like Lisa See or love historical fiction. I’d particularly recommend it if you want to read historical fiction that actually takes place during more or less modern times. AND if you want to learn more about remote Chinese cultures.
But have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you plan on reading it? Let me know!