The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See: Book Review

the tea girl of hummingbird lane lisa see book reviewScribner / Lisa See
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane Book Cover The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Lisa See
Historical Fiction
March 21st 2017

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

Seasoned author Lisa See‘s newest historical fiction novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, provides a fascinating look at tea and an emotionally moving story regarding one woman and her daughter.

The main character, Li-yan (or, as her family labels her, “Girl”), encounters many twists and turns in her life, but manages to be admirably resilient through it all. Born and raised in a remote village on one of China’s great tea mountains, she grew up with the expectation to follow the considerable rules and traditions enacted by the Akha people, the ethnic minority in which she belongs to. Even though this book starts off in the 1990s, it’s impossible to tell since there is almost no indication of the modern world, which made the atmosphere surrounding this village that more intriguing.

Li-yan’s entire life alters once she realizes that she is pregnant—and with her baby’s father off in Thailand attempting to find work, she realizes that she will be forced to give birth to what her people label as a “human reject” and that her baby will meet their death shortly after being born. Instead, with the help of her mother, she secretly delivers her newborn daughter to an orphanage. After this pivotal moment passes and she is unable to get her daughter back after she gets married to the baby’s father, it haunts Li-yan for years. Surviving heartbreak and tragedy, Li-yan eventually manages to enter city life and begins studying tea, focusing specifically Pu’er, the tea that comes out of her place of birth.

Tea. For a lot of us, it’s a warm drink to keep us company while curled up reading a good book, or often serves as a welcome alternative to coffee. But after reading this novel, tea will take on a whole new meaning. It was incredible how See was able to not only expose multiple sides of the tea industry, such as growing, fermenting, selling, tasting, and studying tea, but also how she transformed it into an emotional and familial connection between the two central characters—Li-yan and her daughter.

Li-yan’s daughter, Haley, was adopted by an affluent couple in California. I think that See incorporated Haley masterfully throughout the novel. The reader is offered only glimpses into Haley’s new life as an adopted Chinese girl who is faced with countless stereotypes and high expectations. I thought that this was ingenious. Instead of providing chapters from Haley’s POV, the reader is exposed to elements such as a doctor’s evaluation of Haley’s health when she’s first adopted, her adoptive mother’s emails, a creative short story written by Haley, etc. This made the book seem more fresh and unique. The only chapter exclusively from Haley’s POV is placed at the very end, where it’s the most fitting.

Having read other novels written by See, I knew that I wasn’t going to be disappointed. Predictably, this piece of historical fiction was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was the story able to forge an emotional connection between the characters and the reader, but it also provided a breadth of knowledge pertaining to the tea industry, the culture of the Akha people, and China in general. I also thought See’s examination on the consequences of being an adopted child was fascinating. If you decide to read this novel (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll find yourself connected to the tangible characters, transported to the vivid settings, and full of new knowledge.

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Alicia LeBoeuf
the authorAlicia LeBoeuf
Contributing Writer
I'm a college student pursuing an English major and Communication minor. I love everything book-related and I'm a passionate writer.