Elaine's Reviews > The Color of Tea

The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe
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's review
Jul 31, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: cooking, debut-novels
Read in July, 2012

I confess I generally cut debut novels quite a lot of slack, because the writers are first-time authors and really shouldn't be judged on the same scale as more veteran ones, who've learned the pitfalls to avoid. WIth that caveat, I upped The Color of Tea to two stars. I actually didn't like it, but it had two things going for it: the story made me care for the protagonist and the setting of Macau for this novel was genuinely evocative.

The story surrounds middle-aged Grace Miller who finds herself with her husband ensconced in Macau as expatriates. They have been trying to conceive for a long time without any success, and the stress of that has leached joy out of their sexual congress and bliss out of their marriage. Grace, a former waitress with apparently little proven skill or professional training in anything, begins to turn her mind to opening a cafe in Macao when an opportunity presents itself, with a little help from a professional chef, Leon, whom she also begins to develop unruly feelings for. When the cafe opens, women begin to enter Grace's life, from the Filipino help -- Rilla -- that Leon finds for her, to Gigi, the granddaughter of one of the cafe's Chinese patrons, Yok Lan, a smart-mouth, tres chic, local Chinese girl who can speak English. Then, there is Marjorie, a former dancer and another patron of the cafe, who becomes embroiled more than she bargained for in the plights of Filipino helpers in Macao, who are frequently taken advantage of, not only by the agencies who squirrel them over to Hong Kong and Macao, but also the frequently tyrannical employers who hire them and abuse them with frying pans. So, there are lots of lively characters to work with here. The plot moves along swiftly enough with all these walk-on characters and there is a kind of plot momentum when we witness Grace's marriage biodegrade from the trials of infertility, unspoken hurts and the ghosts of the past, together with the strains that come from both of them working hours that only seem to push them to become ships passing in the night.

The setting is Macau is carefully evoked, and having lived in Hong Kong for a few years, many of the details were very accurately and interestingly drawn. It brought back quite a few memories for me. They also felt true in the way that only someone who has lived in Hong Kong or that area of the world will know, such as the quality of the sun and air, the dealings between expatriates and Filipino help, the insidious and callous racism often demonstrated by expatriates in the us-versus-them general tone of conversation. It's one of these things that are so pervasive that to do what Grace did to Linda -- telling her to 'piss off' often gets you labelled as iconoclastic, eccentric, or worse, one of those guilty-hypocritical-liberals who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. These were all things I observed in the shallowly capitalistic megalopolis of Hong Kong, and also the unacknowledged support band for its continuous prosperity. The Hong Kong Government is laissez-faire in all things, including labor safety and protection.

But there are some pitfalls in this book and I name them here. I name them here because I think that they are pitfalls a debut writer can easily fall into (and I a, guilty of some of them in my own first novel).

1. When a protagonist has lived for a certain amount of time in your head, she takes on certain main characteristics that can get overemphasized and become tiresome in the novel. E.g. In FiFty Shades of Grey, the oft-cited reference is to the the usage of "oh my" by the protagonist whenever she comes to a pivotal emotional moment. Here, while not quite as blatantly unskillful, there are too many occasions describing the protagonist getting up in the morning, or after having just gotten up, or about to go to bed.

2. Character development. Granted, the plot of the book seemed to only allow the husband and wife to meet in the battlefield of the bed, but there were also episodes where they were together which potential was left unmined in my opinion. Grace's way of dealing with things is very passive. When confronted with her husband's unreasonable accusations of adultery, and then his self-confessed sex with a prostitute, her way of dealing is basically not to deal. There is no confrontation other than flung words of "I can't stand the sight of you". Then, when her anger passes, she simply seems to take him back without any proper reckoning.

3. Plot development. Things just seem to happen very easily in this novel. Almost glossed over in fact. I can't imagine opening a cafe in Macau when you speak not a lick of Cantonese can be as breezy as it has appeared in this novel. In the space of two or three pages, Grace has managed to get a cafe open. From a woman without any experience doing any of this, and who was literally unable to get out of bed, I just find it really hard to believe that she was as unruffled as she seems to be over the entire cafe opening, from the moment of idea generation to execution. I'm not sure whether this is lack of research, laziness, or that the initial amount of detail overwhelmed the novel and so she was advised to take it out. But regardless, there should be some balance. I'm the kind of reader that wants to get into the meat of things. I want to get into the heart of the novel, be in it for the duration, good or bad. I do not like to be told that "She had an idea to open a cafe". Then two pages later, the cafe opened.

Next, without so much as a glitch, the cafe takes off. Without any serious marketing on Grace's part. Without her doing any promos. Without the usual business difficulties and start-up issues that confront every entrepreneurial effort. A typhoon does come and destroy the interior of the cafe, but even this seems bleached of any real terror or emotional uprising in the protagonist. All in all, she's either as bland as vanilla or as passive as a schoolbus waiting for the kids to be let out of school.

4. The Ending. Without giving the ending away, I am astounded that this ending was acceptable to the editors involved. Really, you can make that kind of swap? Isn't it illegal? Aren't there plenty of legalities to get through, none of which was even remotely mentioned. And last but not least, Gigi's motivation for the swap is simply breathtakingly bizarre. I simply cannot buy the absolute lack of maternal love on her part, not when she's been painted to be such an upright character. It's like a bad macaron. It leaves a really bad taste in the mouth. What happened here? I would wager that when there hasn't been enough character development, the ending doesn't suggest itself, and this might be one of those cases when the book needed to conclude, but it's not clear how.

5. Also every chapter had a macaron chapter heading. A name for an exotically created macaron such as plum and hibiscus with chocolate ganache or cinnamon with dark chili chocolate ganache. I would have loved for this book to be more Like Water for Chocolate here. Actually provide a recipe. It would leave the reader with something more substantial than just a wisp of exotic food names. Either that or actually describe the process of Grace making macarons. The only thing we ever get a direct glimpse of is her staring into the oven as the shells rise and inflate. We don't get a single description of her actually going through the labor of making them. I have to say: being held with such kid-gloves by the author makes me wonder if she thinks the readers of food fiction novels are idiots or just easily bored.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Deanna Annaed Thanks for your review... I should have read it before I read the book... I agree so completely with everything you said that I could have written your review. Now I don't have to. :)
I hated the ending.

Elaine Thank you Deanna for your comment. It's nice to know I wasn't off base and the only one having a negative reaction. Deanna Annaed wrote: "Thanks for your review... I should have read it before I read the book... I agree so completely with everything you said that I could have written your review. Now I don't have to. :)
I hated the ..."

Fiona Great review, summed up my feelings beautifully. The ending left me wondering if I'd missed a chapter and scurrying back through to re-read. I was disappointed by it.

I was also disappointed to not find even a basic macaron recipe such as the one Leon used to teach her.

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