The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 4

The sweeping, emotionally intense story of an Akha village girl in the Yunnan Province. Spanning 1988 through 2016, Li-Yan (commonly known as “Girl”), goes from tea picker in Yunnan to Guangzhou Tea Master to global businesswoman.

While the characters are well developed and the plot riveting, my favorite aspect of the book is the way the author brought recent Chinese history, American adoption of Chinese children (usually girls), and the tea trade to life.  Especially the extensively researched tea trade — a fascinating discussion of pu’er tea — from the resurrection of the old methods of production (which were discouraged during Mao’s reign) to the history, economy, and medicinal applications going back centuries. Supporting this thread was the impact of various Chinese policies, and slogans on regular people — from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “ To get rich is glorious” to The Thirty Years No Change Policy, the One Child Policy, and the Great Leap Forward. and the recognition of the 55 ethnic minorities (even though there were actually many more).

Another thread follows the experiences of Li-Yan’s baby girl, adopted by Caucasian parents in California with only an ancient tea cake to connect her to her birth parents. While happy with her parents and life, Haley and other Chinese adoptees face the issue of not fitting in — with either the Caucasians or the other Asians. Interestingly, while the bulk of the book is in Li-Yan’s voice, all information about Haley comes through letters, school reports, and other external forms of documentation.

Lisa Yee is a master at sweeping you into a story that you can’t help but care about. Warning — I found the events of the second chapter so disturbing that I almost stopped reading the book but I’m very glad I kept going. I found the descriptions of China fascinating — it was constantly surprising to me to be reminded that some of the things that sounded so “primitive” had been a way of life only 30 years ago. Intriguing plot, well-developed characters, and a rich and historically accurate background environment.

I’m looking forward to reading Lisa See’s upcoming book “The Island of Sea Women.”

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

Heavily pregnant, Scarlett and Daisy, meet at Perfume Bay — the exclusive maternity home in Los Angeles for Chinese women who want to have their “anchor” babies in the U.S. for automatic citizenship. Neither wants to be there — teen-age Daisy has been placed there by parents anxious to separate her from an “unsuitable” boyfriend; Scarlett has been placed there by the baby’s father — also her married boss — who wants the son he believes she is carrying.

After an opportunistic escape, they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown where they learn about motherhood while trying to bulldoze their way to legal status and financial stability (Scarlett) and find the boyfriend (Daisy).

Woven throughout the modern day narrative are the historical stories of Scarlett’s China — highlighting the contrasts between the traditional and modern, the city and the country, and China and the U.S. There are a lot of interesting details included: Scarlett’s estranged mother was the village “family planner” — the woman charged with upholding the unpopular “one child” law (only recalled in 2013, this novel takes while the law was still in effect). Historical immigration policies in the U.S. had banned Chinese women from immigrating as families “weren’t supposed to take root here.” The backstories of other characters reveal even more detail of life in China under Communist rule.

While the end is tied up perhaps too neatly, the story is unpredictable and engaging, the characters are appealing, and I appreciated the inclusion of historical and cultural detail. It is simultaneously a novel about China and San Francisco, quirks and all. It shirks from neither!