Genre: Contemporary Fiction (China)
Type: Trade Paperback
First Published: March 21, 2107
First Line: "No coincidence, no story," my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night."
Book Description from GoodReads: A thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.
Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.
In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.
After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.
A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.
My Rating: 4.5 stars
My Review: In her latest book, Lisa See has written a story about family - in its many forms, the bonds between mothers and daughters, what happens when fate takes the reigns and the differences between several cultures all with the backdrop of the tea industry.
In The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane, See focuses on the Akha, one of the fifty-five cultural minorities from deep in the heart of the tea growing region of China. Their reclusive, rural way of life is vividly described to the reader as are their beliefs, which combine a focus on nature, superstition and strict, and sometimes harsh, rules. Some of these beliefs were shocking and hard to read about but See's description of this culture was told with respect and I became fascinated with their unique culture.
The book has two story lines with the main story focusing on Li-yan, a young woman who was raised in a large Akha family. When she becomes pregnant outside of marriage, a strict taboo in her culture, she makes the heartbreaking decision to keep her pregnancy a secret and give her baby girl up for adoption to give both a better life. Li-yan's life is peppered with struggle and success as she makes her way from living the rural Akha way of life, to experiencing the changes of China's Cultural Revolution, to having success in the lucrative tea business and living a much more modern life than she could have ever dreamed of growing up. While she is a flawed character, you see a strength in Li-yan (as well as her a-ma (mother) who was one of my favourite characters) and I quickly became invested into her struggle, joy, sorrow and determination.
The secondary story follows the life of Haley, the baby Li-yan had given up, who was adopted by a California couple as a baby. Via letters and emails from Haley and Constance, Haley's adoptive mother, See addresses issues some Chinese adoptees and adoptive parents face, namely their struggle to be seen as a family unit despite their physical differences, rude comments made by strangers etc. I liked that See focused on these issues and I found the discussion between Chinese adoptive kids' quite interesting and eye-opening as they talk about their conflicting feelings about being given up for adoption --- going from unwanted to highly treasured.
"On the one hand, our birth parents in China couldn't get rid of us fast
enough. On the other hand, we're the biggest gift to our adoptive
parents. Sometimes I try to imagine what their lives would
have been life if they hadn't gotten me. It's so weird, don't you think?
In China, we were considered worthless. I mean, really worthless.
Here we're super precious, like Heidi said. But you could also say our
moms and dads got cheated by getting the runts - the
throwaways, anyway - of the litter."
I found the story about these multi-generational women fascinating and enjoyed learning more about the massive tea industry. But, while I have recently become a lover of loose tea, I found that there were parts of the book had so much detail about the harvesting, aging and selling of tea that it became a bit much for me. I was in it for the strong women, familial bonds and hoping for a mother/daughter reunion. Also, while there were a few highly serendipitous connections throughout the story, the ending was satisfyingly powerful (yet not overly surprising) and a little too short for my liking. Those are but minor criticisms within a rather stellar read.
This book is rich in culture and I thank Lisa See for bringing the Akha to the forefront of this book but the true focus, the life of one woman's strength, desire for redemption and determination to find her daughter, that made this book for me. This well-written and absorbing book illustrates the undeniable bond between mothers and daughters, both birth and adoptive, and would make an excellent book club pick.
Recommended for: Readers who enjoyed Shilpi Somaya Gowda's The Secret Daughter
Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Scribner Books for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.