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.