Hello, everyone! As you know if you’ve read my blog, I’m a big fan of the author Lisa See and have reviewed a few of her books on the site. Recently I read her newest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and was disappointed at the drop in quality. Even though all of See’s tropes are present, Tea Girl lacks her other novels’ greatest asset: a compelling protagonist. See writes fantastic female characters who suffer from hardship, betrayal, and restrictive cultures, but in this novel, she gets caught up in a net of her own favorite gimmicks. After the brutality of the Taiping rebellion in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the tragedy of the Manchu invasion in Peony in Love, and the horror of the Mao regime in the Shanghai Girls duology, the hardships of a girl in 1990s China pale in comparison. But See is a sucker for suffering, and her insistency on emphasizing the plight of protagonist Li-Yan just makes it that much more obvious how See has seem to run out of catastrophes.
Synopsis: Li-yan lives a simple life in her Akha mountain village. As the daughter of a tea-farmer and the village midwife, she learns the traditional ways of Akha culture. But when Mr. Huang, a rich stranger in a Jeep, enters the village, Li-yan’s life is forever changed. She falls in love with San-pa and has a child out of wedlock, but must give her daughter away until marriage. But when she comes back to find her, her daughter Yan-yeh has been sent to America for adoption. Now Li-yan must come to terms with the loss of her daughter and the changes in her village as China becomes modernized.
My take: What I enjoy most about Lisa See’s novels is her ability to transport me to unfamiliar period in history, while also making me feel like like a native. She makes understanding pre-modern Han culture easy and fascinating. The same applies to her descriptions of the Akha culture, which like always are detailed, well-researched, and nuanced. But unlike her other novels, Tea Girl takes place in the recent past, so my interest in the traditions of the Akha culture disappeared as soon as the modern world entered the story.
I think my disinterest in the present stems from See’s disinterest, too. She just doesn’t seem committed to the second half of the story. After Li-yan leaves Nannuo mountain for good, the plot occurs at breakneck speed. See often writes her books on a rushed timeline, spending whole chapters on one day and two pages on ten years, but Tea Girl‘s timeline was definitely the least-effective example I’ve seen of this technique. Li-yan’s main philosophical struggles disappeared. No longer was she fighting to retain her individuality in a traditional culture, no longer was she trying to define her role as a woman in society, no longer was she yearning for her daughter. Instead it just became a story of her trying to sell expensive tea and meeting a husband. Without these core emotional struggles, I lost any connection to Li-yan that See had constructed in the first half of the book.
When it comes to language and description, See is still in her forte. I had no problems picturing the Akha villages or customs, despite never having imagined they existed, nor did I ever stop enjoying See’s musical prose and dialogue. I liked how she came back to the importance of mother-daughter relationships, which are always at the core of her novels, and how she gave her male characters more development than she usually does. But her main characters lacked the “spark” that she gave to characters like Peony, Snow Flower, Pearl, May, and Joy. I liked Li-yan and was sympathetic to her, but sometimes her characterization contradicted itself and I didn’t feel like she leapt off of the page. Same for her mother, who I wish I could have seen more of, and of Ci-teh, the best friend turned enemy, another of See’s reliable tropes.
The worst-served character, however, is the Tea Girl herself, Li-yan’s daughter Yan-yeh, renamed Haley by her adoptive parents. See attempts a narrative experiment in this novel by introducing us to Haley through second-hand documents, such as a write-up of a doctor’s examination, a spelling assignment, and a therapy session transcript. We don’t get an actual Haley chapter until the very last chapter of the novel. Although at first I liked the mystery surrounding Haley, I eventually grew tired of it. Ultimately, this experiment reduces Haley to something akin to a MacGuffin. We know that Li-yan is searching for her, but we never know enough about Haley to care if she finds her. I also felt that her parents deserved more characterization than what they received. The novel is named after Haley, but her entire life is a blank. The final chapter fills in some of the white space, but her plot seems arbitrary and the resolution seems almost like deus ex machina. It just became too contrived to be believable. If you read it, you’ll understand why.
Final Consensus: Tea Girl is not as strong as Lisa See’s other novels, mainly because of weak characterization and a clash between her love for ancient cultures and her disinterest in the modern world. But as a novel it is still engaging, beautifully written, and satisfying to read. If you’ve read See’s other novels you might be disappointed, but as a casual reader, Tea Girl is a book to savor.
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