Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Title:  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Author:  Lisa See
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501154826 / 978-1501154829

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'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."

Favorite Quote:  "Anguish. Courage. Sacrifice. This is mother love. This is what I must find in myself now."

I wanted to love this book. Years ago, I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See and absolutely loved it. I have since read her other books, but none have managed to capture the intensity or feeling of that first book. I keep coming back though because I love the ideas of her books. I love learning about cultures and about how people - their hopes, dreams, and fears - are the same the world over no matter how different their ways of life, their beliefs, and their choices may seems. I love that they focus on strong women carving out their place in life. I am still hoping that one captures the depth of that first book.

This book also sets up a premise of a culture to explore and a strong heroine to feel for. It is also a story of mothers and daughters. Li-Yan is a member of the Akha minority in China. She and her family live in a remote village and have farmed tea for generations. And not just any region or tea of China. They are in the great tea mountains of Yunnan region and produce what has become well known as Pu'er tea.

Li-Yan lives with her parents, her siblings, their spouses, and children. The family unit work and live together, eking out a living gathering and selling the tea from their groves each day. The family is part of the broader family of the village. Respect for and following of the Akha traditions is the rule they live by.

Li-yan is different. She does well in school and asks questions - even about centuries old traditions.  You might say she is somewhat of a rebel. This is her strength, but it also lands her in trouble with her village traditions. The book begins when Li-Yan is ten and traces the trajectory of her life into old age. A defining moment is when Li-yan finds herself single and pregnant at age seventeen. She breaks with tradition and secretly puts the baby up for adoption. So many turning points of her life stem from that one decision and from the family's tradition of being tea growers.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more so than the second. The first half is about Li-yan's journey to define herself, apart from the traditions from which she comes. It is about reconciling love for family and community that is separate from her thoughts on certain Akha traditions. The first half is also about relationships. My favorite character is actually not Li-yan but her mother. She is Li-yan' mother, matriarch of the her family, a village elder, and the village midwife. She is central to Li-yan's story and displays a quiet strength and wisdom that is inspiring. I wanted to know her story and her perspective, but the book is very much Li-yan's story.

The pace of the first half is unhurried including plentiful descriptions of the setting, the business of tea, and of culture. The one thing that is troubling in the first half are some of the traditions of the Akha people the author chooses to highlight. Let's just say, the impact is disturbing. It does leave me wondering why it is necessary to include other than to shock. It sets a background for Li-yan's story, but Li-yan's story of being an unwed mother would work without that added negative. In today's world, where so many are quick to identify differences and find fault, it would be better if the focus had stayed on the same-ness of human experience, whether in a cosmopolitan first-world metropolis or a tiny, off-the-grid village in China. It is what unites us that should be given light not what may divide us, at least in a work of fiction.

The second half of the book completely shifts pace and focus. The book is still about tea and the big business of tea. However, the book travels far and wide from the insular feeling of the first half. The second half seem jammed with story lines. An old acquaintance enters again. A friendship results in rivalry and worse. Economic boom and bust happen in the world of tea. These are just some of the more "global" events, not even the more personal twists and turns of Li-yan's life.

For me, the first and the second half of the book don't match up in style and story line. Sometimes, less is more, and the deeper and slower pace of the first half works better in this case. The book is still enjoyable in its entirety, but some of the depth is lost to the momentum and speed of the second half.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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