Full disclosure: I added “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane” to my Goodreads list because the name was beautiful and the reviews were high. I had never heard of Lisa See, bestselling author of “Snow Flower,” “The Secret Fan,” and “On Gold Mountain;” It was one of those instances where I was sifting through genres one night in bed and the cover caught my eye: It got a double tap before scrolling to the next. When my sister-in-law found it on my roster and gifted it for Christmas, I was excited but unaware of what the book entailed. I had hardly given the synopsis a thorough pass.
Month two of quarantine recently rounded the corner and I realized that I was hooked on Kindle reads, vowed to tend to my bookshelf a bit before adding something new to my cart.
This book took me out of my comfort zone and transported me to a much simpler, more spiritual place and time: I was quickly introduced to a remote Chinese mountain village of Spring Well, home of the native Akha tribe. The story took place in 1988: Villagers had no communication with outside cities, made a living off the farming of Pu’er tea, and strictly adhered to the rituals and laws enforced by the Akhan spirits and village leaders. The people were incredibly in tune with the seasons, paid utmost respect and attention to dreams, and were compliant with the roles established for male and female, husband and wife, child and elder.
Li-yan, or “Girl,” was the daughter of a midwife, destined to learn her mother’s practices and carry out a life of being a respectable wife, mother, and tea harvester. Unlike her siblings, she did not have much to offer her future mate: Where some marital dowries came with property, lush tea trees, and other riches, Li-yan’s mother prized her with an hidden plot of land, mountain and tea trees, unable to be harvested and reserved for only its female owners: Males who came into contact with the trees were fatally impacted.
But Li-yan had no true desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps: Although she learned the practices of her intended vocation, she was smart, enrolled in school and ensured that her education would take her beyond the ideals of the village. She led two different lives: picked tea leaves, carried out family tasks, and fell in love, began the Akhan marital process with a boy in school, but her dreams and studies pulled her olong another path. When she became pregnant out of wedlock, an unfortunate discovery for either fate, Li-yan was forced to keep her pregnancy a secret, give birth in private, and send her baby to an orphanage outside of the village.
Li-yan’s education and upbringing converged and her extensive knowledge of tea opened a world of prestige. She finished school and moved to the city, started her own profitable tea-selling business with high-end buyers. She was able to sell her family’s harvest and assisted her village financially, slowly modernizing their world.
But Li-yan remained torn, knowing that she lived one life while her child was somewhere in the great unknown, leading her own. Did she have new parents that loved her? Did she live in China, America, or elsewhere? Did she wonder where she really came from, and what happened to the gift that Li-yan left with the baby and the orphanage?
The story takes the reader up and down the noisy streets of Kunming, through California’s affluent neighborhoods, in search of the daughter that Li-yan is desperate to find. The reader, in tandem, soars high among the trees, circling the mountains of Spring Well in search of the finest tea trees, a student of Pu’er and its attributes. Lisa See opens up our eyes to so many things in “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane:” the expansive, deeply rooted customs of Akha’s culture, the fine details of nature’s offerings, and the profound, unwavering bond between a mother and daughter, in its many forms.
Final Score: 4 It took me a few chapters to wrap my head around “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane.” Immediately, I realized that the subject was foreign to me: The “Author’s Note” spoke of tea leaves in the mountains of Yunnan and I was suddenly skeptical as to whether or not I’d like the book. But reading this just goes to show: Don’t judge a book by its cover, or the first few pages.
The extensive research that Lisa See conducted proved to be the novel’s greatest strength: She was able to paint the most beautiful pictures with her words and I devoured her descriptions- of the Akhan tribe and all its superstitions, the old, wise mother tree, the ominous jungle, and more. I learned so much about Pu’er tea and, quite honestly, the topic was refreshing, something new in a backdrop of fictional storylines.
BEST FOR: Fictional lovers who appreciate a diverse reading list. If I were to gift this book to anyone, I’d pass it along to my mom, if she was still alive. My favorite part about the book was the theme of motherhood: It surprised me with its diverse presentations. Li-yan’s mother, her mother- in- law, the mother tree, Li-yan herself, Haley’s adopted mother… I loved weaving in and out of their similarities and differences. Simply put, this novel is a beautiful tribute to the female bond.
NOT GOOD FOR: Those looking for a traditional fictional love story, or an easy read. “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane” expands on its definition of love, the worldview… and its expertly done.
IF THIS BOOK/ AUTHOR WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STEREOTYPE: Li-yan would be named, “Most Likely To Succeed.” I admire her fearlessness and heart.
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