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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2017-02-06
- Reviewer: Staff
Li-Yan is the youngest daughter of an Ahka family near Nannuo Mountain in China in 1949. She tries to follow Ahka law, the rules set forth by the beliefs of this ethnic minority, but at every turn she seems to find herself doing the opposite: An Ahka girl must obey and learn from her mother, but Li-Yan studies hard at a modern school. Although an Ahka girl should not speak to men, when foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Puer, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. If an Ahka girl gets pregnant, she must marry the boy, but when Li-Yan gives birth, the father is gone. And, according to Ahka law, a child born outside of marriage must be killed. But Li-Yan cannot bring herself to do it. Instead, she leaves her daughter at the doorstep of an orphanage. While Li-Yan matures into a successful tea master, the daughter, Haley, is adopted into a white American family in Los Angeles, and her existence is revealed in sporadic letters, school reports, and, later, emails. These sections capture both Haleys desire to fully integrate into her adopted family and her curiosity and heartache about her mother and the only clue she left behind: a tea cake. With vivid and precise details about tea and life in rural China, Li-Yans gripping journey to find her daughter comes alive. (Mar.)
Lisa See's most ambitious novel yet
Lisa See’s enlightening new novel offers her readers multiple storylines, each of which focuses on the engaging character of Li-Yan, a member of the Akha tribe of Yunnan Province, one of China’s ethnic minorities.
When the novel opens in 1988, Li-Yan is 10 and already the star pupil in the Spring Well Village School. Her mother is the village midwife, and she hopes to pass on her skills to Li-Yan one day. But Li-Yan, the smartest and most ambitious of the family, harbors the hope to be the first to advance to secondary school and beyond—and eventually to venture outside her isolated mountain home. But her lessons are cut short when she becomes pregnant at 17. According to tribal custom, Li-Yan’s baby, born out of wedlock, must be killed—but she and her mother conspire to give the baby girl away to an orphanage in a nearby town. Li-Yan leaves her daughter there with a tea cake wrapped in the swaddling blankets.
Li-Yan and her mother are heirs to a secret grove of trees that produce the most sought-after tea leaves in the region. See’s extensively researched story of the tea production in Yunnan Province, especially the rare Pu’er tea unique to Spring Well Village and the mountains nearby, is fascinating, and it becomes the main focus of Li-Yan’s life as she attends a selective tea college and eventually opens her own highly successful tea market.
Interspersed with chapters portraying Li-Yan’s years of struggle and eventual marriage to a wealthy Chinese American are those written in the voice of her daughter, who was adopted by an American couple and grows up in southern California with all the privileges Li-Yan could have hoped for her. From a young age Haley has hoped to someday find her birth mother, the only clue to her identity being the tea cake that came with her to America.
See’s ambitious novel touches on Chinese cultural history, the centuries-old intricacies of the tea business and both the difficulties and joys of Chinese-American adoptions. But ultimately it’s a novel about the strength of mother-daughter ties—peopled, as is each of See’s novels, with strong characters with whom the reader empathizes from the first page to the last.