This is a novel where I went in knowing nothing about the subject matter. I know absolutely nothing about tea or tea leaves; I don’t even drink tea (which is something that my family just can’t get over)! I also am completely unaware about Chinese culture, and the ethnic minorities that reside in China. This novel talks about these things but it is a whole lot more than that. Here is my review:
In a remote Yunnan village, 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. They are Akha people and must follow the way of their ancestors. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives, searching for a rare tea. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger. The arrival of the stranger also marks changes in Li-yan’s own life – and her beliefs on the rules that have shaped her existence thus far. 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. Over the years, Li-yan has slowly left the security and insularity of her village behind to encounter modern life while Haley, the daughter she abandoned, 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.
This book was completely out of my comfort zone, and I loved it. This is my first time reading anything by Lisa See, so I really didn’t know what to expect. The story starts off with Li-yan, when she is just a young child. The author gives the reader an idea of what life is like in this village, and what it means to be part of the Akha people. We learn about their customs and traditions, and the reasons behind their rules. It is beautifully explained, and I think Li-yan was the perfect character through whom to explore this culture. I loved reading about Li-yan growing up and developing, and the author really got me to connect with her character. I felt her emotions and understood her thought processes throughout the story. This novel also goes into a great deal of detail about the tea business and the process of finding the right tea leaves and making that perfect blend. For someone who never knew about the effort that goes into this business, it was really eye-opening. While the tea aspect is important to the story, it sometimes detracted from the actual plot. The novel is divided into multiple parts that chronicle different time points in Li-yan’s life. There are also moments where we find out what happened to Li-yan’s daughter, and this was one of the highlights of the book for me. I think I really enjoyed the beginning, where we got to see Li-yan grow up and endure various hardships. The midpoint of the story dragged a bit, but the tidbits about Li-yan’s daughter, Haley, helped tide me over. The ending was what I was really interested in; I wanted to know if the two would ever meet. The ending is a cliffhanger, and while I usually don’t like this, I thought it was very appropriate for this novel. It gave me the opportunity to imagine what I thought the encounter would be like, and I’m glad the author left it up to the reader’s imagination to decide what happens next. All in all, this was a great novel that really taught me a lot about Chinese culture and tea, while also revealing a beautiful story about identity, motherhood, and the desire to belong. I would recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction!