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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

book cover of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Honestly I was going to rate this three stars, but then the story just abruptly ended when my Kindle said I was 86% done, and I felt SO RELIEVED that I realised this probably wasn't a three-star book for me, unfortunately.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane starts in rural China in the early 1990s, following a young girl, Li-yan, who belongs to the Akha ethnic minority. Her early life is thoroughly miserable, with her elders reminding her constantly that she's a worthless, unwanted nuisance because she's female, and her mother exasperated and frustrated because she can't even get on board with the ritual murder of babies she'll be required to perform if she's to succeed her as a midwife. In her adolescence, she's supposed to be concentrating on school because her teacher thinks she could be the first person from her village – or even from the general area – to ever make it to university. However, she gets distracted when a tea merchant from Hong Kong arrives in her village, seeking out a particularly exquisite brew from the area. She helps him out, translating for her non-Mandarin-speaking village and even providing extra-special tea leaves from a super-secret grove that her mother tells her not to pluck for this man. She also gets distracted from school by a boy in her class, San-pa, on whom she has a crush and who she manages to get pregnant with before he leaves to look for work in Thailand.

She can't raise a baby out of wedlock – only a few years earlier, her mum would have made her sacrifice it in a ritual baby murder – so she surrenders it to an orphanage in a nearby, bigger town. That baby goes on to be adopted by a white American couple and raised in Los Angeles, under the name of Haley. As for Li-yan, things with San-pa don't work out, but she does become a highly successful businesswoman in the tea industry, and ends up moving out to Los Angeles herself.

There are some good things about this book, so don't let my lack of enthusiasm discourage you if you think this book is a great fit for your interests. My own favourite aspect was probably how it depicted the rapid changes in rural China between about 1990 and 2010. Li-yan goes from spending her childhood in abject poverty to being able to make webcam calls over her laptop when she visits her village, as one example. It's the kind of thing where like, sure you could read a Wikipedia article or something about China's economic growth, but reading concrete examples of how people's lives have changed, even in fictional form like this, helps to drive it home.

But unfortunately, there were also parts of this book that I found kind of displeasing, for lack of a better word, and the good things about this book just weren't enough to overcome that. Clearly I found the murder of babies really distasteful (I know there are reasons why small human societies faced with overwhelming, harsh scarcity had such practices, but it doesn't mean I'm chomping at the bit to read visceral accounts of it!), and the vehement hatred of women and girls shown by the village elders in the early part of the book was pretty tough to stomach, too. Then later on, the book acquires a very different problem of existing in a world where everyone is a multi-millionaire with multi-millionaire concerns. There was a romance that just didn't have enough meat on it to be enticing, and even the central plotline – Li-yan's separation from her biological daughter, and their attempts to find each other – just felt underwhelming. The last chapter randomly being from Haley's perspective also felt befuddling, and I had no real sense that the book was winding its way to its ending earlier than like, one page before that end.

Overall, I felt like the other Lisa See book I read recently, The Island of Sea Women, was just a lot better, even though I wasn't in the right frame of mind to read it when I did. The story was tighter, and the historical detail (or… information about tea, in this case) struck me as more interesting. I'm not trying to say this was a bad book though, just one I personally didn't find the most enjoyable.

★★½

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.