Monday, December 4, 2017

Tea Lovers Book Club Pick #1: "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" by Lisa See

Where's my puerh? That's pretty much all I could think about this weekend as I finished reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, the first selection for our new Tea Lovers' Book Club.

Summary: Li-Yan is the only daughter in a family of tea growers in the Akha "ethnic minority" in China. From a young age, she witnesses hardship, poverty, and the superstitious rituals that are so integral to the animistic culture in which she is being raised. An unusual (and unlikely) opportunity for further education gives her a chance at a better life, but Li-Yan becomes pregnant by her fiancé, and her life takes quite another turn when she has a daughter, absent the fiancé, and travels to another town to abandon the child, a necessity because of China's infamous One Child policy. The daughter, Haley, is adopted by an American couple, and we learn her story through miscellaneous writings interspersed throughout the book, including letters written by Haley's doctors, her mother, transcripts from a counselor, and Haley's own writings. Over some two decades, we also follow Li-Yan as she marries her fiancé, is tragically widowed, leaves the village and gets her education, and goes on to marry a wealthy businessman, all while she adds to her knowledge of puerh tea production—yet always wondering about the baby girl she left behind.

My thoughts: It took me a while to get into this book. Fortunately, I soon got to a passage dealing with Li-Yan's mother, who was a midwife. I doubt I've ever had a reason to mention this here before, but I once seriously considered becoming a lay midwife. In my twenties and thirties, I attended about a dozen births (more than half of these were home births), and I've helped women push that baby out, cut umbilical cords for squeamish fathers, and hung around as the midwife examined the placenta to be sure all the pieces were there. So I happened to bond with the midwife storyline before I bonded with the tea storyline, but I'm sure it goes without saying that I loved the tea storyline in the book. Now I'm inspired to do a little research on puerhs myself.

The characters: Li-Yan was certainly an interesting young woman, and there were quite a few times I felt sympathy for her, but I feel that the author was holding something back, writing with the brakes on, as if she was afraid to delve too deeply into Li-Yan's emotions. My favorite character was Li-Yan's daughter Haley, and I enjoyed the passages that described what was going on with her here in America. I found the passages about Haley much warmer and more accessible than the ones about Li-Yan. Maybe this was by design and each woman was as open as her culture allowed her to be. What do you think?

Other questions for discussion (and please feel free to leave a comment on any or all of these):

• "Coincidence" is a theme that runs throughout the book, and its very first line, something often recited by Li-Yan's mother, is "No coincidence, no story." The book ends (and ends rather abruptly) with a near miraculous coincidence where three people end up in the same place at the same time. Did you find the ending plausible?

• Haley's advisor seems skeptical about some of the health claims being made about tea and says, "I'm not interested in marketing, anecdotal evidence, or supposition about tea that isn't backed by fact or reason." Was she being too harsh? Should all "anecdotal evidence" and "supposition" about tea be discarded in favor of only "fact or reason"?

• Li-Yan's world was incredibly different from ours. Do you enjoy reading about a culture that's different from yours? Why or why not?

The next book: For Christmas, I'm going with something lighthearted from across the pond, "The Cosy Christmas Tea Shop" by Caroline Roberts. (It's just $1.99 on Kindle.) I hope you'll read along with me and be ready for a discussion on Friday, December 29!


  1. I love this idea of having an online tea-themed book group! I purchased this book but just did not find time to read it. I did,however, enjoy your review. I will save the book for summer reading. Now on to the next one that you have suggested!

  2. And I will make one more comment, this one on the topic of coincidence. I enjoy the "magic" of coincidence. Whether there is any greater meaning to it or not, I like to believe there is an invisible hand at work in the world. I enjoyed the movie _Slum Dog Millionaire_ which was entirely driven by the power of coincidence. It added a magical touch to the story, in my opinion.

  3. I had so much going on when you first mentioned the Book Club, that I never got around to getting this book, much less reading it. But I LOVE Christmas books and have already got the next selection on my Kindle app, lined up to read so I'll be ready next month!

  4. I did read the book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It certainly made me more aware of where my tea comes from, and how different the culture - it was more like "long ago" as opposed to fairly modern times. I agree that Haley's story was more open, and it was nice to read between the lines of her schoolwork to follow her life! I know alot of people don't feel the same about the benefits of tea, but I know it makes me feel better.....and that's a fact! Yes, the ending was abrupt, but it brought tears to my eyes. I wish there had been one more chapter, but I just had to write it in my mind. :-) Thanks for doing this book for the Book Club, and I enjoy your blog immensely! Charlene

  5. I started but haven't finished it yet.....

  6. Now with your review I want to read it again. I do enjoy reading about other cultures and especially love historic fiction.

  7. I too thought this book was a little hard to get into. I do enjoy reading about other cultures and am glad to have read this book. Thank you for creating this online book group.

  8. I totally enjoyed the book. Some of the culture was hard for me to wrap my head around because it was so different. We all face adversity and I found Li-Yan an inspiration of carrying on and going with the life that comes your way. I was so happy with the end. I will check out the next book. Have a great week. Sylvia D.


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