Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Lisa See - The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

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.
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 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 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.

Comment: I had this book in the pile since 2017 but once more, only years later did I get to pick it, which means, in average, the status of a book "to be read" in my pile is quite long...
I had liked another book by the author years ago, and that was mostly why I had this to be read but the idea of two women from different generations being separated and, perhaps, meeting again, seemed intriguing...

In this book, which starts around 1988, we have the story of Li-yan, a young girl who is born at the Yunnan province in China, home to several different tribes and also some of the best tea in China. As Li-yan grows, we get to see her learning and both loving and dreading her family's life traditions, as well as her desire to improve herself and see different things. Everything seems to follow a pattern, as dictated by Chinese culture, but Li-yan's life has a turn when she gets pregnant without being married. From that on, and after a decision she feels she has to take, once again her life has a new turn and she wonders if she will ever be free of constrictions. But life still has some surprises for her, especially when she realizes her family's region and its tea can be the solution for many of the problems which have surrounded the previous generations. But will Li-yan succeed when she feels she committed a mistake by leaving her child?

I really liked reading this book. It's one of those situations where I can see why some might not like it, or why I can excuse some minor details I'd change while, overall, I have enjoyed reading about the big picture. Somehow, this story captivated me and made me eager to keep reading.

I think my favorite element of the book is how it doesn't derail into tragedy mode. Even when things seem harsh and impossible or unfair, there was still a certain sense of calm which allowed me to read and not give in to despair over the problems the characters faced. In this aspect, I think this book was more successful than the other one I read by the author, which felt a little darker, less optimist.

Li-yan is the narrator and while I would have preferred third person, I feel she was such a likable heroine that I could easily overlook my preferences. She is a fighter, a good person, not perfect as seen as the "mistakes" she does, even though she thought she wouldn't fall into that trap, and she learns to rely on others, on trying her best to become more successful but at the same time, she also learns to accept the traditions and culture of her country and region, of her tribe, the Akha, but still defending some change in the things that don't feel as fair. I really liked how, at the end, an important part of her self journey was defending the honor of those who worked with tea in her region and wanted to preserve something special.

Li-yan's life wasn't easy, in fact there were some scenes which we could see would not lead to anything good, but like I said,t here's this sense of hope in the writing, which lulled me into reading and at some point I was actually sorry I had to interrupt reading for chores and such. The author also included the adoption theme, namely the fact many Chinese girls are adopted for several reasons, and how that affects the perception and experiences of both mothers and daughters. I think this subject was more a tool to present Li-yan in a conflicted situation, rather than a psychological and cultural study, so don't expect a comprehensive nor too complex treatment of it. For me, it was a good enough theme, but it was superficial, in the sense it worked in a very simple manner for pot purposes.

Another issue I liked was how the author inserted the tea as a cultural element of China and how it was/is done and there was also some technical and even financial information about this here and there, which shows the author investigated, gave some sense of contemporary knowledge to what was being described and allowed me to learn something and to look for images on google of the Yunnah province and of tea customs.

The end of the book had some cheesy scenes, a little bit too much of coincidences but in the big scheme of things, nothing  terrible enough (for me) to make the story feel weaker. As a matter of fact, I wish the author had inserted an epilogue at the end, because although I can imagine a lot and sometimes an idea/scene can work wonderfully, after such a warm tone in most of the novel, and more so towards the end of it, I would have loved something more detailed, allowing more obvious closure. Still, for me this was a very satisfying novel and I see myself re-reading my favorite emotional parts.
Grade: 9/10

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