Sunday, March 19, 2017

strictly literary: the tea girl of hummingbird lane by lisa see

what i love about lisa see's novels is how well-researched they are. the level of detail she provides about little known chinese ethnic minorities and their way of life is impressive and totally engrossing. in the tea girl of hummingbird lane, see explores the akha people who inhabit the remote mountains that grow the tea leaves used in teas around the world.

the story begins in the early 1990s and takes us through to the present and explores the changing world. when the novel opens you'd have a hard time believing that it wasn't the middle ages, the akha are that far removed from society and technology. in one harrowing scene we learn about the akha beliefs about childbirth and the terrible sacrifices they make when they believe that something has gone wrong. this is a pivotal scene in the novel, it's horrifying not just too the reader, but to our narrator, girl or li-yan. that event pushes her to explore other options than the one defined for her by her parents.

by seeking further education than the one normally expected of girls like her, she opens herself up to new possibilities and experiences. but she starts out by making mistakes. she falls in love with the wrong man. while the akha society is generally very backwards, they are remarkably progressive about sex. they believe it is important to have sex before marriage to know if you are compatible with your partner. but you can't get pregnant. unfortunately for li-yan she does get pregnant. and her partner has gone off to try to make his fortune in order to be worthy. giving birth to a baby out of wedlock would usually mean death for the baby, but li-yan's mother is the local midwife, and she helps li-yan hide the pregnancy, deliver the baby, and helps li-yan send the baby to an orphanage.

when san-pa, li-yan's erstwhile lover, returns and they are finally allowed to marry, li-yan tries to get her baby back only to be told that it is too late, the baby has been given up for adoption to a nice american family. and since abandoning an infant is illegal, li-yan and san-pa escape to thailand to make a new life for themselves there. it doesn't go well.

in the meantime we are given glimpses of li-yan's baby, named haley by her american parents. through letters and doctor's notes and essays we get a sense of what life as an adoptee is like. what it means not to look like the rest of your family. what it means to have no sense of your ethnic background when you don't resemble anyone who is allegedly from your same part of the world. what it means to have unknowable questions about your identity and what it feels like to be afraid to ask them because you don't want to hurt the people who have raised you and love you, but who don't have the answers you need.

from the moment haley was adopted and li-yan lost all hope; their lives start on a collision course toward one another. as we move forward in time, li-yan rebuilds her life. she finds new love, she starts a new family, a new business, while knowing that there's that missing piece of the puzzle just beyond her reach. and you just want them to find one another, even while knowing that it seems so unlikely that their paths would ever cross. luckily we're reading fiction, well-written and divinely-plotted, but definitely fiction.

this is a story of mothers and daughters, of family, of self-discovery and of identity. it's a story about what it means to know your heritage and where you come from. and what it means when you don't know those things. this is a powerful story that see weaves, a beautiful one too.

and maybe there were a couple of slow spots that were mainly info dumps about tea and tea growing, but they were beautifully written. i just have no patience. i was too invested in learning about what happened to li-yan next.

**the tea girl of hummingbird lane will publish on march 21, 2017. i received an advance reader copy courtesy of netgalley/scribner in exchange for my honest review.

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