Lisa See is one of my favorite all-time authors. I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan several years ago and was instantly hooked on See's exquisite storytelling. Since then, I have read Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and China Dolls. I always eagerly await See's next new tale about China and the everyday people that inhabit the country and read the book as soon as it is released.
See's most recent novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, follows Li-Yan, a young girl growing up among the Akha people, one of the minority groups that live in the Yunnan province of China. Li-Yan and her family harvest tea and are one day visited by a businessman from Hong Kong, Mr. Huang, who wants to purchase tea for Pu'er, a fermented tea cake the is likely to contain a multitude of health benefits. Thanks to her teacher's tutoring, Li-Yan is the most educated member of her community and the only one who can be counted on to negotiate with Mr. Huang. Li-Yan is the heiress to a plot of tea trees that are very old and are used by her mother, who acts as the community's healer, as medicine. Though her mother warns her never to bring a man to the plot, Li-Yan finds that selling a couple of the tea cakes to Mr. Huang will solve her problem of falling in love with a boy that her parents don't wish for her to marry. Li-Yan believes that her and the boy will be able to run away together and could use the money on their journey. Instead, selling the tea cakes brings misfortune for the couple in the form of an unwanted pregnancy. Due to Akha custom, Li-Yan can't keep the baby and abandons the baby at an orphanage. Soon after, the baby is adopted by an American couple who names her Haley. Not a day goes by when Li-Yan or Haley do not think about reuniting.
There is so much to love about this book. Through the story, we learn about a minority tribe that is rarely discussed and how they have influenced tea drinking around the world. Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing about the Akha people, who have very different customs from the Han people, which are the majority ethnicity in China. I loved the details about the tea and how it was woven into the story (but that may be because I love tea). We also learn about adoption and how that can make children feel both grateful, but also angry. The child may feel loved and wanted by their adoptive parents but can't understand why they were not loved and wanted enough by their birth parents to be kept. Finally, the bond that Li-Yan and Haley have, despite not knowing anything about one another, is heartbreaking, in some moments, and amazingly touching, in others. Just like See's previous novels, the story in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane will not disappoint.
See also has a special gift in crafting characters that are very unique. Each character has his or her own voice and is complex. Li-Yan's husband may drown his sorrows over his lost daughter by using opium but he makes sure that his last breath is one of kindness and sacrifice. The complicated feelings that the adoptees have towards their adoptive and biological parents, and the effect that has on their lives and the lives of those around them, is interesting and a topic that is not often featured in literature. The characters in this book are unique but also traditional enough to introduce readers to the culture of the characters. There is a certain authenticity one can feel in the characters of this novel.
My only complaint about this book, and any books that I have read by See, is that they can sometimes be a bit slow in some parts and then rushed in others. I don't think this takes away from the story but it is one issue that I found myself struggling with while reading. I still think this was a wonderful story and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading books featuring characters from different cultures. This would also be a great book for readers of historical fiction or for anyone who enjoys a wonderfully woven story that spans many years.
Watch a video of Lisa See talking about The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane:
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