Published by Scribner
Publication date: March 21st 2017
I have always enjoyed Lisa See’s novels for their intimate portrayals of women in China at various points in its history. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is her latest and, once again, See brings to life the stories about people and places about which I knew nothing. The novel is set in the 1980s in the Yunnan province, an area known for its tea. Li-Yan’s family, like every other family in their small village grows and sells tea leaves and has done so for generations. Li-Yan’s path is to become a midwife and healer like her mother, get married and have children of her own. By age twelve, although she is well on her way to these goals, she dreams of leaving their village, going to college and living in the city. She also believes she can do all this with San-pa, the boy she loves.
Of course, neither life or fiction is that straightforward. Li-Yan and her family are Akha, one of many ethnic minorities in China. Chinese, but always viewed as culturally inferior because they have their own language, dress and customs. Li-Yan’s family lives as subsistence farmers without electricity or indoor plumbing and their lives are largely untouched by the Communist regime. They hold many beliefs that are little more than age-old superstitions. San-pa is not deemed suitable so he decides to go to Thailand and earn enough money to convince her parents that they can marry. He leaves, not knowing Li-Yan is pregnant, but when he returns she has already had a child without her family’s knowledge and secretly left the infant at a state-run orphanage. From there the novel moves between the United States where their daughter has been adopted by a couple in San Francisco and China where Li-Yan continues to live.
The Tea Girl is steeped in traditional romance storytelling despite its exotic setting. There is young, forbidden love, unexpected pregnancy, a child lost, and a husband with secrets who is not what he appears to be. All of this before Li-Yan turns eighteen. The drama continues to mount. Li-Yan perseveres, gets an education, starts her own business and never stops looking for her daughter. If this sounds like a lot, it is. See is marvelous with details, but in The Tea Girl the embellishments overshadow the key elements of the story, especially those about the world of tea. The Yunnan province is known for a variety of tea called Pu’er which is fermented, aged, pressed and sold in round discs. This becomes Li-Yan’s passion and its realities are more than enough to sustain the novel’s tension without additional, unnecessary dramatics.
See’s ability to write of the hardships unique to the women of China and their individual journeys makes her the kind of author I rely on. She takes times and experiences that are utterly foreign to most of us and makes them feel universal. Her characters struggle, but come out stronger in the end. Unfortunately, Li-Yan’s trials often feel implausible, with man-eating tigers and near death escapes. The life of the Akhas and their tea is fascinating enough. And while an uplifting ending is often welcome, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane will only be a perfect cup if you like your tea more sweet than strong.
Kim @ booksarelove says
This was an amazing review! I really enjoyed reading it 🙂
Susie | Novel Visits says
I loved the first Lisa See book I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and several others were very good, too. I’m not sure if I grew weary of her writing or the newer books just weren’t quite as stron, but when I saw Hummingbird was coming out, I just wasn’t interested. After reading your thoughts, I think I made the right decision!
Elizabeth (Silver's Reviews) says
LOVE her books.
Thanks for sharing. Too much romance for me in this one. 🙂 The cover and title are very inviting, though.
Agreed. It read more like a fairy tale than her other novels. Too sweet!
Oh too bad. Lisa See can be so good but this sounds like too much in its teabag.
Donna @ OnDBookshelf says
I completely agree with your assessment. I loved learning about the tea, and strong female characters, but this just dragged in parts with superfluous drama. Also, I’m a parent of two daughters orphaned in China, and I don’t care that the author mentions in the credits that this is based on one true experience, it completely gave off the wrong impression about finding a daughter given up.
Fascinating- I had no idea if that was realistic or not. What about it was off? Is it easier to find a child that’s been given up? Or harder?
Eva @ The Paperback Princess says
Oh thanks for the heads up on this one. I love her books but have been wondering about this one! I am not in the mood for a book that is so syrupy. Shame that the embellishments overshadow the plot! Maybe her next one will be better?