Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

At first I had a hard time getting into this book; by the end I had a hard time putting it down.  The novel starts in 1988 in a small mountain community in rural China, not far from the border with Myanmar.  Li-Yan is the youngest child and only daughter of poor tea farmers; her mother is the local midwife.  It is assumed Li-Yan will follow in her mother's footsteps.  Instead she shows a real talent for learning and is encouraged by the local school teacher (a city man sent to the countryside as part of the cultural revolution) to further her education; perhaps even one day earning a spot in a university.

The community Li-Yan lives in is part of a small minority in China - they are governed by centuries old traditions and superstitions; some of which seem unnecessarily harsh.  But her mother is a strong character who encourages both her education and her connection with ancient tea trees which were passed down on the female side of her family.  

With her mother's help Li-Yan gives birth to a child out of wedlock and leaves her on the steps of an orphanage in a nearby town (when tradition would have required the women to kill the baby).  The baby girl is adopted by an American couple and moves to California.  After the adoption the novel follows both mother and daughter.

Li-Yan eventually becomes a skilled tea trader; while her daughter searches for clues behind a cake of tea that was left with her at the orphanage door.

I don't want to give away any more than that about the ending because I encourage you to read the book.  The end is satisfying if perhaps a bit predictable.  I really liked Li-Yan's character as well as her mother, husband and mother-in-law.  This is worth the early struggle to get to the end.  Though I will caution that sometimes the descriptions of the tea business and the history of tea were a bit tedious and I needed to skim those parts.  It didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

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