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.