Reviews

 

Little Tea

by Claire Fullerton

Reviews

Every so often you read a novel so intricately and exquisitely crafted that it reaffirms an admiration for the whole art of writing. Little Tea by Claire Fullerton (Firefly Southern Fiction) accomplishes this considerable feat with a sensitivity as graceful as Southern charm. But not everything about the tradition-steeped culture of the past is as pleasant as it looks on the surface. The reader, through the intelligent and reserved perspective of protagonist Celia Wakefield, steadily discovers these alarming discrepancies while attempting to both discern the present and understand what came before. As flashbacks clarify Celia’s context, the supporting characters take on fully-fledged lives of their own, practically dancing out of hers and into their own rich narratives. The conclusion binds their stories together with some utterly satisfying twists and revelations. 

Celia Wakefield is a mature married woman with a stable job living in California, now far removed from her Southern roots. She is, however, still quite close to two childhood friends, so when down-to-earth Renny expresses concerns about ethereal Ava, the three meet up at Renny’s lake house in Arkansas in an attempt to set a few things straight. It’s easier said than done; Celia has to confront a nuanced personal history which she’d much rather keep internalized. A palatial ancestral plantation in Mississippi provides the setting for most of the flashbacks, with familial relationships taking center stage in a drama that plays out as her narrative unfolds. Her father, mother, two brothers, and grandparents all have crucial roles, as well as her old love Tate and her two aforementioned friends, but the bond she shares with “Little Tea” outshines all the others. Little Tea, the daughter of Celia’s family’s black housekeeper, is the heart and soul of the novel, the lynchpin around which the drama revolves. 

Little Tea has many strong points thanks to the adept Claire Fullerton. She clearly thrives when employing her métier. Themes and motifs including illuminating the complexities of Southern culture, delving into gritty yet convincing family dynamics, examining racial tensions, wrestling with mental illnesses and addictions, and, above all, proving the tenacity of enduring love between friends, all are handled with tremendous skill yet a delicate touch that keeps the prose elegant and highly readable. Fullerton has great fun when setting the stage for a scene, painting a vivid image with lush language such as, “In the air, a vibrato of cicadas pulsed so discordantly as to be concordant, like one wall of sound that tricked the ear until I could feel its heartbeat.” As the reader jumps back and forth between the past and the present, it never feels jarring or incongruent when the author can create a sense of place this deftly. Every character is complete and complex, hiding profound secrets under their Southern guise of composure, and it is a joy to understand them better with every memory that Celia invokes. 

Though gorgeously penned and sometimes as dainty as a fine cup of the title beverage, Little Tea also manages to raise profound questions and demand critical reflection upon some challenging truths. Celia’s bond with Little Tea faces many obstacles and pressures, with the ugliness of prejudice twisting an apparently compassionate cultural climate into something destructive and disturbing. Some characters have moved forward from old sins while others have not, wrenching families apart. While racism underscores the narrative, its presence doesn’t, unfortunately, mean that the characters avoid life’s other misfortunes. Marital dissatisfaction, identity crises, battles with depression and addiction, and death itself still haunt the pages of the novel. In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, there is a persistent sense of hope and joy illuminating the pages; it inspires Celia, Ava, and Renny to come out of this trip with a better understanding of their lives through the lens of their friendships. Love runs deeper than hate, and that reassuring truth is the real crux of Little Tea.

Judy Moreno - BookTrib

Celia, Ava and Renny have been friends since they were 10, but time and tragedies caused Celia to leave her southern roots for California. When she receives a call from Renny to come home, that Ava needs help, Celia decides to put her past aside to help her friend. Three days together at Renny’s lake house causes Celia to revisit a life and path she tried to outrun and to reflect on her life, her past, and all its relationships and tragedies.

 

This book surely shows that Fullerton is a queen of Southern literature. Her vivid descriptions of Como and Memphis had me living the story right along with each character, I was running along the bank of the lake right along with Celia and Little Tea, dancing at the harvest party with Tate, and sitting on the lake house porch right along with Renny, Celia and Ava sharing a drink. The stand out for me is the emotions behind the story; this is a book that will make you think. The flashbacks are set in 80’s, but it feels like it should be much earlier, especially regarding race relations. I loved how this had me really see how the area is still so dated in its beliefs and perceptions reflecting earlier times in history. This the jaw-dropping ending literally had me yelling out loud. This is a book I could not put down. I highly recommend this story; it will take you on a roller coaster of emotions. 

The Book Review of Authors on the Air 

Little Tea by Claire Fullerton takes readers on a journey of betrayal, young romance, friendship, and racism in the '80s. Ava, Celia, and Renny had been friends since they were thirteen years old. Years after, when Ava struggled with her decision to leave her twenty-three-year marriage, they plan on getting together in Memphis (their hometown). Ava had been with Stan since she was twenty-two, but now she feels that they are in a rut. On reaching Memphis, Ava got back in touch with her ex-boyfriend, Mark. What nobody could have seen was that Celia's ex-boyfriend, Tate, was also in Memphis and was eager to talk to Celia. His presence brought up many memories of the past, sweet and bitter, that Celia had worked hard in keeping buried. Betrayal of Tate, good times with her brother, Hayward, and the heartfelt discussions with her charismatic friend, Little Tea, were the most significant of all those recollections. Little Tea by Claire Fullerton is an experience and not just a book. Most of the time, Celia narrates the story, but that does not decrease the importance of other characters. Ava is a capricious woman that brings the fun factor into the plot. Renny is a straightforward woman whose personality oozes control. Celia is a thinker who does not speak without analyzing all the facts. Little Tea, whom Celia considered her best friend, only wishes to get far away from the racism of Memphis. Hayward, Celia's brother, brings calm and joy into the plot. He takes a firm stand against the racist comments of his family without showing any sign of anger or annoyance.

 

Claire Fullerton has done a commendable job of discussing the prejudiced opinion of a few privileged sets of people against the black community in the '80s. Although Celia and Hayward can find no flaw in Little Tea, not all members of their family tolerate this friendship. Claire Fullerton moves both the present and the flashback parts of the story almost in parallel. Drama, the innocence of youth, the banter of friends, and suspense are my most cherished elements of this book.

--Ankita Shukla for Readers' Favorite

“Claire Fullerton once again delivers an emotional, lyrical tale and proves she’s a writer to watch.”

 

--Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

 

 

" If Southern fiction is your sweet spot, then Little Tea is the bullseye and Claire Fullerton an expert marksman. Claire Fullerton writes with a depth of character, compassion, and hope. 

--Kristy Barrett and Tonni Callan of A Novel Bee. 


 

Fullerton delivers another poignant work of Southern Fiction in Little Tea.  With a well-paced narrative and sense of place, we revisit the hard truths of family and friends in the Deep South, where the past is never past. 

--Johnnie Bernhard, author of Sisters of the Undertow


 

Little Tea, set in Como, Mississippi, during the turbulent 1980s, is another brilliant southern family saga from Memphis native and master storyteller Claire Fullerton. Stunning prose, vivid characters, a captivating story, and an ending I never saw coming.

--Susan Cushman, author of Friends of the Library and Cherry Bomb, and editor of Southern Writers on Writing

 

 

Little Tea is a simple title that belies a story that is both complex and compelling. Beautifully written, the novel moves seamlessly between the 1980s Memphis and the present, as we become fascinated by the family dynamics, and events that would change the lives of those touched by them. It is a book you will be reluctant to put down, and with some unexpected twists to the story it will keep you captivated to the end.

--Sally Cronin: Author and Book Blogger: Smorgasbord 

“To a Southerner, any place outside of the South is ‘out there.’ There’s the South, and then there’s everywhere else,” says Celia Wakefield, the narrator and protagonist of Claire Fullerton’s fourth novel, Little Tea. Forty-five-year-old Celia has worked hard to put the tragic events of her own Southern upbringing behind her. Happily married and living in California, she rarely returns home, but when her friend Renny calls to say that another friend, Ava, is in trouble, Celia must go.

The three women have known each other for more than 30 years. Celia thinks she is prepared for the journey until she lands on the tarmac in Memphis to a familiar sensation. “There, the past comes hurtling full throttle to meet me,” she admits. “If it’s not at the gate, it’s waiting in the parking lot, smiling sardonically and holding the form-fitting coat of my childhood.”

As the three friends wind down and catch up at Renny’s lake house, memories come flooding back of their youthful mistakes and roads not taken. Renny is a successful veterinarian, divorced and independent, determined never to marry again. Careless Ava is unhappily married, drinking too much, and contemplating potentially catastrophic life changes. Practical Renny loses patience with Ava’s dubious decisions. Celia, the peacemaker, tries to remain neutral and upbeat, but the effect of being once more with her longtime friends is palpable and mysterious. “I know now, since I’m well into my adulthood,” she says, “that there’s a side to the unions made in high school that has perpetual resonance, a side that remains in arrested development that will never let you forget who you essentially are.”

Fullerton alternates the present action at the lake with Celia’s recollections of her formative years on her family’s cotton plantation in Como, Mississippi, 45 miles south of Memphis, in the 1980s. Young Celia’s best friend is an African American girl named Little Tea, whose parents live and work on the property. The two children discover the world together in the forests and fields surrounding the farm. They spend their time fishing in the pond, following animal trails through the woods, and searching for buckeyes to add to their collection. It’s a near idyllic childhood. But when Celia turns 10, her parents move her and her two older brothers to Memphis. “My reaction to the move was complete despair,” Celia recalls, “for the thing about being a Southern girl is they let you run loose until the time comes to shape you.”

Over the years, Celia adapts to the social constraints of city life as her circle of friends and opportunities expand. Little Tea has a different experience and dreams of escaping the suffocating racism of Mississippi through an athletic scholarship to a college further north. Still, despite the cultural differences that threaten their bond, they remain close until a shocking act upends both their families and their lives. 

Fullerton brings to vivid life the patterns of Southern speech and culture she portrays. She is especially adept at illuminating the power of friendship to soothe, to support, to protect — and sometimes, to tell hard truths and expose the wounds that have not healed. Celia marvels at how well she, Renny, and Ava understand one another and resume their former relationships, even after so many years apart. “Combined, we were a girl complete,” Celia admits. “Separately, we were inchoate and in need of each other, like solitary pieces of a clock that were useless until assembled, but once assembled, kept perfect time.”

--Tina Chambers: Chapter 16

I just click with author Claire Fullerton’s writing. I loved Little Tea just as much as Mourning Dove. She knows how to weave a southern tale.

Renny, Ava, and Celia have been friends since childhood, but they haven’t seen each other in ten years. They reunite at Renny’s lake house in Arkansas with much-needed time together commiserating and catching up.

Something happens that changes the tone of the weekend. Celia’s old boyfriend visits the lake house and causes the women to address the past.

Told in two timelines, the present and the 1980s, the story begins for these three friends. The deep south in which they grew up is not as pretty as it appears. Race and class issues are addressed with a profound but gentle hand.

Bottom line, I absolutely adored this story of friendship and how the remarkable bond of these strong women persevered over a long period of time.

--Jennifer: TarHeelReader's

Set at Greer's Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas, Little Tea explores the bonds of female friendships that have lasted through the ages, coming home, and coming to terms with aspects of Southern culture.

Claire Fullerton sets the stage when three childhood friends reunite after a decade of separation. "I've had more friendships than I care to list come and go over the years. People I thought would be in my life forever fell by the wayside for one reason or another, some leaving me baffled and bruised and second-guessing. But Renny Thornton and Ava Cameron have remained. The progression of years and disparate locations has not altered our bond one iota. We became friends when we were thirteen, and now that we're "a little older," each of us realizes we're in it for life. Our dogged loyalty to each other is partially based on longevity. We've invested too much time in each other to turn back now. We overlook the fact that we're as different as night and day in what our lives have become, because we began at the same starting point. Born to a certain sect of the South so staid in its ways few people ever leave."

Their reunion is laced with childhood memories as narrator Celia Wakefield reflects on her coming-of-age on her family's 3rd generation farm in Como, Mississippi. In the midst of deeply-engrained cultural beliefs about the racial divide in the Deep South, readers are swept into a family saga impacted by society's opinion of Celia's close friendship with the spirited Thelonia, who goes by the nickname Little Tea.

Readers of women's fiction and Southern fiction will find Little Tea thoroughly engrossing and satisfyingly unpredictable as each character undertakes an emotional journey that is captured with a lyrical, lilting attention to detail: "I've heard it said you don't recognize the best times of your life unless you see them in hindsight, but I beg to differ. I knew every moment of this day for exactly what it was, and each crystalline variable seemed to me a highlight: the selection of the low heels and white sleeveless dress I wore, the arrival of Renny and Mark and Ava, the secret flutter of my heart every time I met eyes with Tate."

Little Tea is the story of the ties that bind during changing times and documents the bravery it takes to move forward. Readers of women's literature will find it a compelling story of Southern friendships and their evolution.

Diane Donovan for Midwest Reviews

Must read 🏆

Brilliantly-written book about family, friendships, and relationships colored by lingering racism in the 1980s southern United States.

Synopsis

One phone call from Renny to come home and “see about” the capricious Ava, and Californian Celia Wakefield decides to overlook her distressful past in the name of friendship and head back to the South. For three reflective days at Renny’s lake house in Heber Springs, Arkansas, the three childhood friends reunite and examine life, love, marriage, and the ties that bind, even though Celia’s personal story has yet to be healed.

When the past arrives at the lake house door in the form of her old boyfriend, Celia revisits the life she’d tried to outrun. As the idyllic coming of age on her family’s ancestral grounds in bucolic Como, Mississippi unfolds, Celia realizes there is no better place to accept what happened in young adulthood than in this circle of introspective friends who have remained beside her throughout the years.

Theirs is a friendship that can talk any life sorrow into a comic tragedy, even Celia’s great heartbreak over the loss of her childhood friend, Little Tea. But changing times are full of surprises. From them, will Celia learn that friendship has the ability to triumph over history?

What a brilliant book! Little Tea has so many layers that I don't know where to begin.

 

In essence, it tells the story of Celia Wakefield, who had a liberal upbringing on a plantation in Mississipi in the 1980s, despite the lingering racism against the Blacks. She has a happy life with her best friend, Little Tea (who is Black) until a terrible tragedy occurs which causes her to flee her home state and never look back.

 

The book begins with Celia and her close friends Renny and Ava, now nearly 50 years old, meeting for a weekend at Mississippi after a long time. Returning to the seat of her tragedy causes many memories to unfurl, which are described in flashback chapters.

 

The reason for the meeting is to help Ava figure out how to fix her failing marriage. Although the three women are completely different in terms of personality, they have managed to remain friends for over 30 years.

 

The undisputed heroine of the book is Little Tea, who stole my heart with her confidence in the face of discrimination. But what happens at the very end was a shocker for me. Can people get over their prejudices and change that much?

 

It was interesting to read about the culture of Southerners and how they consider everything outside their state as foreign. Celia's mother made a special impression on me. Her dignity and grace in the face of everything is inspiring. She belongs to a time when brushing things under the carpet was preferable to speaking about it, even in front of family.

 

The author's language and writing style is so accomplished that I don't know how to do her justice. She describes feelings, perspectives, and relationships with a skill that makes you want to pause and think instead of rushing through the book.

 

This isn't a quick and light read. It is a book to be savored, little by little. The author describes all the characters and their side stories one by one without losing the main plot or the attention of the reader.

 

In the end, you're not sure if you feel sorry for Celia's naivete or admire her fortitude. I'm still trying to decide if she was right to escape it all to a far-off place or she should have come back at some point to resolve the pain and betrayal.

 

There's much to chew over in this sensitive portrayal of friendships and family. Highly recommended if you want an elevating but non-preachy book!

Reedsy.com

Celia, Ava and Renny have been friends since they were 10, but time and tragedies caused Celia to leave her southern roots for California. When she receives a call from Renny to come home, that Ava needs help, Celia decides to put her past aside to help her friend. Three days together at Renny’s lake house causes Celia to revisit a life and path she tried to outrun and to reflect on her life, her past, and all its relationships and tragedies.

 

This book surely shows that Fullerton is a queen of Southern literature. Her vivid descriptions of Como and Memphis had me living the story right along with each character, I was running along the bank of the lake right along with Celia and Little Tea, dancing at the harvest party with Tate, and sitting on the lake house porch right along with Renny, Celia and Ava sharing a drink. The stand out for me is the emotions behind the story; this is a book that will make you think. The flashbacks are set in 80’s, but it feels like it should be much earlier, especially regarding race relations. I loved how this had me really see how the area is still so dated in its beliefs and perceptions reflecting earlier times in history. This the jaw-dropping ending literally had me yelling out loud. This is a book I could not put down. I highly recommend this story; it will take you on a roller coaster of emotions. 

The Book Review Crew: Authors on the Air

© 2020 Claire Fullerton