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 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

Little Tea is available for purchase. Learn more about Fullerton on her BookTrib author profile page.

Claire Fullerton is the author of Little Tea, the five-time award-winning Mourning DoveDancing to an Irish Reel, and A Portal in Time. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, and her novella, Through an Autumn Window, appears in the book, A Southern Season. She is represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency and lives in Malibu, California.