November 18, 2019

Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See, “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review), a moving novel about tradition, tea farming, and the bonds between mothers and daughters.

In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.

The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.

As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins. Across the ocean Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.

A powerful story about circumstances, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond of family.

I went into The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by author Lisa See without entirely knowing what to anticipate. I was excited by the premise, intrigued, and I was curious to find out if See would be able to give me a memorable experience through the story. Suffice to say, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was everything I could have wanted out of a novel and more. It was a heart-wrenching emotional rollercoaster that blew my expectations out of the water. This is the kind of novel that sticks with readers forever.

                The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-Yan whose family resides in a remote village which is comprised of the Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha. The Akha follow strict teachings that are unique to their culture, and with Li-Yan’s mother being the midwife of their village, she is expected to bide by the Akha’s cultural norms. However, as Li-Yan becomes one of the first educated people in her village, she begins to break away from Akha tradition. When strangers come to the village in search of a rare tea, Li-Yan becomes their translator, and is ignorant to her own forbidden pregnancy until it is too late. Desperate to save her unborn child from the traditional consequences of being born out of wedlock, Li-Yan must make a decision that will follow both her and her child for the rest of their lives.

                I was surprised by how The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane drew me in and had me on the edge of my seat. See brings the Akha village to life for the reader, as well as the way that the Akha live, and their evolution from being devoted to their culture to being modernized and immersed in the high demand tea business. I never thought that I would become so caught-up in a novel that focuses mainly on tea. But See’s writing just crafts the story in a way that makes it all work.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a mother-daughter story that is raw, gritty, and powerful.  See’s writing is vivid and concise. A lot of the time novels written in the first person fall flat because the protagonist isn’t interesting enough, or because the protagonist lacks depth, and this just can’t be said for this novel. Being inside of Li-Yan’s headspace is a unique experience, and I adored her as a main character. I ached with her tragedies, and I wanted only to see her overcome and thrive. This is a novel that takes hold of the reader’s emotions and refuses to let go of them. There were far too many times where I was moved to tears, or red hot with anger, or hopeful for what might come next for Li-Yan.

My only complaint with the novel would be the last quarter of it, simply because I felt that the novel’s resolution was so clean-cut and obvious. It didn’t quite mesh with the high intensity, ‘what could come next’ qualities that seventy-five percent of the novel had. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the ending—I did—but I felt that there was so much more that could have been done to make the novel’s conclusion just as compelling as its exposition and climaxes.

I would recommend The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane to readers who are looking for a piece of fiction that is unique and unforgettable. Any readers who are looking for a novel that deals with the connection shared between mothers and daughters should also give it a read. Lastly, any readers who are looking for a well-written, well-told story that spans decades should also give it a try.

Lisa See, author portrait for “Snowflower and the Secret Fan.”

Lisa See is a Chinese-American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Dragon Bones, and On Gold Mountain. She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles.

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