REVIEW: All the Tea in China by Jane Orcutt
I’ll admit that it was the gorgeous cover of this book that enticed me to buy it. The back cover blurb promised me a “fast-paced, witty, and lighthearted tale of adventure, romance, and the pursuit of impossible dreams” plus some action set in the Orient in 1814 so despite my dislike of historical novels which feature sword wielding maidens, I headed to the counter with it. There were a couple of things I didn’t realize at the time namely 1) that Revell Books is a Christian themed publisher and 2) that Jane Orcutt wrote Christian themed books. Now, I’m not going to bash these books as being mean to fellow readers is not something I like to do, but this isn’t a genre I usually pick though I did enjoy one previous book published by Bethany House. When I closed this book, I felt I had been preached too just a teensy tiny bit but as with the Cathy Marie Hake book, since the setting was a historical, I could go with it. I also felt saddened to learn that Mrs. Orcutt died a few months ago at an early age and that I wouldn’t get a chance to read any new books from her.
“All the Tea in China” does pretty much live up to the “A Rollicking Regency” description though it’s not quite the romp I was expecting. The heroine, Isabella Goodrich, has a fine sense of the absurd, a nice sense of humor and can laugh at herself. She knows that learning to fence is an affectation and does try to keep it under wraps but she’s also a young woman – albeit coming close to being on the shelf — who wants a husband, a home and a family. She likes pretty clothes and is delighted with the new dancing slippers to go with her new dress that she plans to wear to the local baronet’s dinner party. Sir David’s slightly condescending wife has promised Isabella an eligible man will be there but to her disappointment, the man turns out to be Phineas Snowe. At first glance Snowe is a poorly dressed missionary home from China to drum up funds for his work who obviously finds Isabella beneath his intelligence and hardly worthy of his time. This despite the fact that the uncle who raised her is the dean of Christ Church college at Oxford and he’s let her be tutored by some of the best there. But she decides to play along and spends the evening being vapid for his benefit. She also learns just how firmly “on the shelf” the people there think her.
When she learns her uncle has invited this odious man to dinner, she throws off all pretense and lets him see her true self. Snowe surprises her by asking her to accompany him the next day on some missionary work in the poorer parts of Oxford and she is surprises herself to learn just how much she enjoys helping others. With no prospects for a husband in sight, Isabella muses on her future and to the obvious consternation of her uncle and companion, she decides her true calling is missionary work. After all, God has let her be taught above the usual station for a woman, she is truly religious, it doesn’t look like anyone will ever offer for her and to just sit at home embroidering pillows her whole life would be a waste. It seems so right to her that she’s shocked when Snowe turns down her request to accompany him back to China along with 3 other missionaries. Not one to make a decision then abandon it quickly, Isabella sets off to London to convince Snowe to take her along, then when that doesn’t work, she decides to stowaway on the East India ship bound for China.
Okay, usually at this point in a story, I’d be rolling my eyes and muttering “TSTL” idiot under my breath. But somehow Orcutt makes me believe this tripe. Maybe it’s Isabella’s humorous acceptance of the absurdity of it or just my wish to cheer her on in her determination not to let anyone or anything stand in the way of what she knows is her true calling in life. Whatever it is, I want her to succeed and am delighted when she gets her way, mainly because she managed to hide out in the cow stalls for three days and there’s no where to put her off. Snowe grudgingly accepts what he can’t change and she’s on board at least until Cape Town. During the voyage, she and we begin to realize that not everything is as it seems, people are not who they’ve been presented to be and there is an underlying agenda going on. As promised on the back blurb, Isabella discovers a world beyond the narrow confines she’s known in England, people with whom she’d not normally associate and someone to love and be loved by.
Yes, the book is full of Christian references and Isabella is determined to bring her religion to the people of China. But she’s also made to think about things in the reverse: what if a Chinese Buddhist traveled to England to spread the word of his gospel there? She gets a chance to see China beyond the narrow confines of the trade areas allowed by the Chinese government. She sees some wonderful and some horrible things and learns just what the East India Company is doing to the Chinese people with what is traded for tea. In other words, she really grows up.
I felt that the hidden agenda ended up being pushed aside too easily and wondered just how much missionary work Isabella would end up doing. I was delighted to read a book that, while not red hot or even steaming, more than adequately conveyed the growing love Isabella finds. And, gosh darn it, I still love the cover. B-
This book can be purchased in trade paperback.