Screaming in a Chinese Hotel Room
Content warning: adoption, unhealthy relationships, drugs
By: Lisa See
Before I go into my review, let me give a little bit of background about myself, which might help you all understand my reaction to the The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Never a fan of coffee, I grew up drinking tea. Because tea leaves are somewhat expensive in the United States (and they weren’t readily available where I lived until recently), I learned to settle for teabags. Later, around my second year in university, I happened upon the Tianshan Tea City in Shanghai, China. I returned every week during the winter break, and every month during the following semester, learning how to brew tea from a gaiwan (a bowl-like tool for brewing tea) and tasting the differences between types of tea. I left China for about a year after that, and my tea education stagnated. When I returned, I picked up where I left off, this time to learn as much as I can before I had to leave again. Slowly, I’ve been differentiating not just between types of tea, but between different blends of a single type. Just before coming across The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I started to experiment with pu’er tea.
I picked up my first Lisa See novel, Shanghai Girls, in high school, and read it over the course of a weekend. Ever since, See has been one of my favorite authors, and she may or may not have influenced my eventual decision to study in China (even I’m not sure at this point). When I learned The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was up for grabs on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it. Fortunately, I was selected as a pre-reader, and I honestly can’t recommend the book enough.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is primarily about Li-yan, an Akha (a particular Chinese minority; China has 55 ethnic minorities) girl from a tribe on Nannuo Mountain. The mountain is now well-known for its pu’er tea, but during the beginning of the story, the people on the mountain had no idea what pu’er is, and the type of tea was itself relatively unknown. As a result, Akha people live in poverty. Their families and their spiritual traditions are all they have (that and a plot of land allotted by the Chinese government). In the beginning of the novel, Li-yan expressed doubt about her tribe’s traditions. When I first started reading, I really thought the novel was going to be about a girl who stops living by her cultural rules and moves to the west to sell her culture as a commodity. I’m so glad The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane didn’t go in that direction.
In Akha tradition, each action can result and either bad or good fortune. As Li-yan goes through life, she tries to understand what is happening to her based on the way she has behaved in the past. The book focuses not only her life, but also on the growth and production of pu’er tea. A less-skilled author might have handled these sections dryly, but See writes them in such a way that they seamlessly flow into the pace of the novel. As a tea nerd, I especially enjoyed this information, but even those who don’t drink tea will learn a lot about it from reading this book.
At one point–and I can’t say when or why without including a spoiler– the novel branches off into a substory, with its own characters. One of the characters in the sub-story has something to do with a couple characters in the main story, but otherwise the storylines remain completely separate. Despite the difficulty of juggling two completely different plots, Lisa See manages to pull it off. She avoids inconsistencies while giving characters depth. She made me truly care about each of the two main characters, and I also formed opinions about some of the supporting characters. See’s superb writing style, quick pace, and excellent word choice kept my eyes glued to the book. I went to read a chapter before bed and before I knew it I had read three.
The only criticism I have about The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is the way it ended. Throughout the entire novel, I found myself surprised by what happened next (at one point, I was whisper-screaming, “NO, NO, OH MY GOD, NO!” in my hotel room. I’m so glad I was alone), but the last few pages or so were too predictable. I suspect this happened because See wanted to quickly wrap up the loose ends, but because of the way the novel ended, it would have been nice to have experienced a little bit more of the emotional atmosphere for the two main characters. I actually would have preferred to hear about the events from Li-yan’s perspective as well as the other character. As it is, I didn’t feel like the novel had a tight ending. I actually even flipped the page after the last sentence expecting to find another chapter.
That being said, the rest of the novel is fantastic. Of the 384 pages, only the 2 of them disappointed me. Fans of Lisa See will surely enjoy her latest book. For those who haven’t yet read anything by the author, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, is an excellent starting point.