Although I am more than a few years removed from the middle-school version of myself, Laura Schaefer’s debut novel, The Teashop Girls, spoke to me. Yes, it deals with themes of coming-of-age and friendship, as the publisher, Simon and Schuster, has chosen to highlight. But, for me, the overarching theme was that of coping with the inevitable changes that growing up brings, while at the same time finding comfort in constants, such as tea, that help to smooth life’s often bumpy road.
For Annie, the novel’s passionate protagonist, who is making her way through the middle-school years, change is a double-edged sword. At the outset of the novel, Annie is garnering the courage to ask her grandmother, owner of The Steeping Leaf – a beloved neighborhood teahouse – for her first official job. For Annie, it represents an important turning point and illustrates a willingness to embrace change. But as the novel progresses, Annie is confronted with other changes that are not so welcome, including her best friends’ waning interest in the Teashop Girls and the possibility that The Steeping Leaf may close its doors. Annie’s wise and kind grandmother, Louisa, part therapist, part tea connoisseur, and part businesswoman, addresses Annie’s clear despair by noting that her color seems a bit off and suggesting some rose hips. “Why do the things we care about have to change?” Annie asks. “I don’t really know the answer to that, sweetie. But I do know that sometimes change can be for the better,“ Louisa responds, adding, “there will always be tea, dear.”
The novel offers a measure of down-home advice for coping with change that is neither maudlin nor nostalgic. Having survived several years now of change, some welcome, some not so welcome, I found The Teashop Girls a comforting book and a reminder that it is best not to label change “good” or “bad”, but take it at face value and be open to the possibilities it presents.
In addition to her skillful handling of themes that are too often handled with platitudes, Ms. Schaefer makes her novel even more appealing by weaving in a wealth of information on tea’s history, variety, preparation, and health benefits. I love the interspersed recipes, vintage tea advertisements, quotes, and even marketing advice. The illustrations by Sujean Rim, who I am familiar with through my Daily Candy email announcements, are an added bonus.
What a shame that The Teashop Girls was not around when I was embarking on my teenage years. Perhaps I would have come to tea much earlier in my life.