A Winding Thread: Coffee Shops and Tea Houses

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For previous installments, check out Green Magic and Books and Journeys.) With the winter cold settling in for the season, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on coffee and tea shops, because the only thing better this time of year than a book and a mug of tea is tea and a book about tea! 

My picks are: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune; A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers; and Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune follows the newly-dead (and not happy about it) lawyer Wallace Price, as he settles in at Charon’s Crossing, a teashop that serves as a waystation for the recently deceased as they prepare to move onto the Afterlife. Wallace is an embittered man who has somehow throughout life lost any spark of joy he might once have had. But in his days spent with the teashop’s owner, Ferryman Hugo Freeman, Wallace rediscovers the taste of joy, and gains a taste for tea — and for Hugo himself.

This delicate and moving novel is not only a love story, but an ode to the cycle of life. Without ever being trite, it discusses death in all its many shapes and colors, and was a sweetly satisfying and emotional read. So, in a book about death, where does life — and tea — come into it? 

Klune’s teashop serves as a fictional respite, a temporary breathing space. Hugo, the owner, has already been through his own journey, which leaves him free to simply be there for the souls passing through his domain. The book, then, focuses on the teashop’s ghostly patron: Wallace. In his path to growth and acceptance, tea is ever-present, from that first personalized cup upon his arrival, to the shared enjoyment of the tea plants in the garden, to the gentle cadence of watching customers come and go like the tide. The role of tea in this is simply to be there, a steady, warm presence that buys Wallace the time he needs to come to terms with his own life story.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers introduces a whole new world, a post-industrial wonderland where humans have learnt to live in harmony with each other and with nature. But even the most idyllic settings cannot stop people from discontent, and so it is for Sibling Dex, who is searching and failing to find meaning in their life. Dex has left their sheltered life in a monastery to be a traveling tea monk, tasked with offering patrons all over the land a moment to breathe, or to confide, or to lament. But when Dex meets one of the elusive robots who live in the wild, they are forced to consider the question: ‘what do people need?’ And to think about what they, themselves, want from life.

This tender and hopeful novel continues the narrative of change that we see in Klune’s book, but the focus of the story is on the ‘tea shop owner’ themselves. Tea, here, serves as a reason to reflect, to pause life and think about what comes next, and where one’s path should lead. Yes, tea still exists as a respite, but only for the patrons. For Dex, tea begins as an adventure, an opportunity for transformation. But what happens when the kettle brews up more questions than answers; when the necessary change must come from within and not from without?

If Under the Whispering Door makes us think about acceptance, and A Psalm for the Wild Built creates space to consider our own path in life, then my third pick, Legends & Lattes: A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes by Travis Baldree takes those two themes and builds on them, arguing that even when we know exactly where we’re going and have embraced our choices, there’s still room to grow. This charming tale introduces us to Viv, a battle-weary orc warrior who is determined to hang up her sword and open the first ever coffee shop in the city of Thune. Amid the trials and tribulations of starting a business, Viv soon finds out that no one, not even formidable former warriors, can go it alone. And the life she’s been dreaming of will only become a reality once she opens her heart to the new friends she meets.

Refuge is the central theme in this one. Legends & Lattes is similar to my second pick in that here, too, we have a character seeking change through something new. But it is also different: when the desired life change is set in motion, instead of inner discontent it brews up a hunger for more, leading to new friends, a new found family, and a sense of belonging. Only when this is achieved, can the refuge that Viv builds for herself truly come to be.

Respite. Reflect. Refuge. In truth, all three words could apply to any of those three novels. Whatever the particular meaning that tea (and coffee) take on in each of these tales, they are bound by a common thread of taking time to breathe, to figure out one’s place and path in life. This trio of quiet stories focuses more on the internal than the external, gifting us a variety of answers for common desires: the desire to be free from the roles we’re given, often by ourselves; the desire for self-understanding; the wish to belong. And if we come away from reading with a little extra warmth in our hearts and the urge to sip a nice cup of something? Well. I’ll just pop the kettle on.

2 Replies to “A Winding Thread: Coffee Shops and Tea Houses”

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