Vanessa Yu never wanted to see people's fortunes—or misfortunes—in tealeaves.
Ever since she can remember, Vanessa has been able to see people's fortunes at the bottom of their teacups. To avoid blurting out their fortunes, she converts to coffee, but somehow fortunes escape and find a way to complicate her life and the ones of those around her. To add to this plight, her romance life is so nonexistent that her parents enlist the services of a matchmaking expert from Shanghai.
After her matchmaking appointment, Vanessa sees death for the first time. She decides that she can't truly live until she can find a way to get rid of her uncanny abilities. When her eccentric Aunt Evelyn shows up with a tempting offer to whisk her away, Vanessa says au revoir to California and bonjour to Paris. There, Vanessa learns more about herself and the root of her gifts and realizes one thing to be true: knowing one's destiny isn't a curse, but being unable to change it is.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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I predicted the future on my third birthday. My aunts had been drinking their tea, and Ma had left her cup on the small table beside the sofa. As any curious child would, I imitated the habits of the older women: my two small hands cradled the ceramic of the handleless cup, fingertips not quite encompassing its circumference. I took a sip. As I gazed at the tea leaves floating at the bottom, my vision blurred and my mouth filled with the bitter taste of chewing on a grapefruit rind.
"The Hofstras are moving. Jeff doesn't love Rachel anymore."
I fell to the floor in tears, feeling the force of a sadness I could not comprehend. My aunts rushed over to me as Ma held me in her arms. There were whispers in Mandarin and Hokkien, but I heard only the name of my aunt-Evelyn-repeated.
Any possibility of a life of my choosing was extinguished like the candles on my birthday cake.
Every prediction had a taste. The family's new business venture was savory: a bite of roasted pork belly. A family squabble was bitterness: the dregs of a stale, cold cup of tea. A joyous fortune like Auntie Ning's pregnancy and baby girl was sweet: the sticky center of deep-fried sesame balls.
My last happy prediction was four months ago, for my cousin Cynthia's nuptials, which now brought my aunt, uncle, and me to Williams Sonoma to browse through her wedding registry. Three weeks ago, I bought an abstract, mixed-media painting for my cousin at one of my favorite galleries. We had decided it would be perfect in her dining room above the low, minimalistic, bleached birch buffet table she loved. Today, I was tagging along to help my aunt and uncle with their purchases.
Walls of pristine metal cookware gleamed alongside shiny new appliances aligned on golden wooden shelving. None were of any interest to me. I only stepped into this store to buy gifts for others. My preferred merchants peddled paintings, not pots and pans.
Auntie Faye tapped my arm. "I don't understand why she needs so much cookware. The girl doesn't cook."
"Maybe it's aspirational," I suggested. "I mean, you can't fault her for wanting to learn eventually."
Cynthia and I were both inept in the kitchen; we overcompensated with a library of takeout menus to the best restaurants: digital copies for convenience, paper preserved as trophies.
Although I had predicted this wedding, and I loved my cousin, I felt uneasy. With Cynthia married, I would become the oldest unwed cousin. Being single meant the focus of the attention was on you at every gathering and function. There was nowhere to hide from the probing questions. My cousin Chester described it as "being naked and vulnerable, and none of your relatives will give you a fig leaf." The joke was tailored to my tastes, and I appreciated it.
Uncle Michael examined a set of pastel Le Creuset ramekins. They shifted in their box with a slight ceramic clink as he lifted them to eye level. "I think these are mostly for Edwin. He can bake a decent Sacher torte. Cynthia invited me over last week to show off her soon-to-be husband's skills."
In his midfifties, dashing, and sharp, Uncle Michael was always my favorite. Like all my aunts and uncles, he appeared at least a decade younger. I always likened him to a Chinese Gregory Peck circa Roman Holiday. A lead user experience designer at a large financial corporation in Fresno, he lived three hours away and I never got to see him enough.
"Vanessa," my aunt began, "now that Cynthia is getting married, you should think about-"
My uncle jabbed my aunt in the ribs.
"Michael!" Auntie Faye held her stomach, feigning injury.
"This is about Cynthia, not about Vanessa."
A diminutive woman with dark hair swept into an elegant updo, my auntie Fay embodied the ideal salon owner: flawless skin, perfect hair, stylish wardrobe, and the subtle scent of Chanel No. 5. She knew she looked good, and wasn't the type to hide her assets behind false modesty. I adored her for it.
I moved away from the polite argument between my aunt and uncle.
A South Asian saleswoman in her midtwenties, close to my age, approached me with a smile. "If your parents can't decide on a registry item, we can definitely explore the gift card option instead."
The effortless rapport I had with my uncles and aunties often led strangers to misidentify them as my parents. We tended to play along instead of explaining the mistake.
"They'll work it out. I'll suggest the gift card idea, though, in case they don't." I thanked the salesperson and returned to my bickering "parents."
"Don't push Vanessa." Uncle Michael tucked the set of ramekins under his arm.
"Not pushing is why she's still single in the first place. Linda isn't aggressive enough in her setups."
Ma's machinations to get me married began the moment I was born, and I had rebelled against them ever since. Dad identified the strain of stubbornness as a classic Yu trait, and this failing of mine was excused, but only to a certain extent.
I cleared my throat.
Auntie Faye paused and smiled. "We're only trying to look out for your best interests."
"I know I am," Michael interjected, "but I'm not sure about Faye." He tipped his head toward the registers. "I'm buying these. You two should figure out where you want to go for lunch."
Auntie Faye grabbed my arm and steered me toward the fine china. Of all the goods in the store, these were the most appealing, with their beautiful patterns of florals mixed with modern designs and colors. A few months ago, I treated myself to a set of milk-white La Porcellana Bianca plates as an impulse purchase. The gorgeous hollowed spiral design had a sculptural quality I could not resist. My dad praised my adult decision and excellent taste while we ate takeout tandoori chicken.
Auntie Faye lowered her voice. "Any new predictions?"
In addition to mahjong, it was a Yu family pastime to hedge bets on my predictions. To them, I was their beloved fortune-teller. My gift was as accepted as the science of Chinese numerology or the zodiac charts my uncles consulted before making business decisions.
"No, Auntie. Thank goodness."
She frowned. "Maybe we can get one during lunch."
My aunt was the family's gossip queen. I often thought she chose a career as a beauty salon owner to facilitate her need to know everyone's business. If gossip were a commodity, she would control the market.
"Auntie, I am not a fortune vending machine."
"I just want to be here if anything comes up."
Uncle Michael, armed with a paper shopping bag, approached us. "Faye, why don't you go check out. I need to talk to Vanessa for a minute."
"Tell me if she says something." Auntie Faye waved and headed for the till. "I'll just buy a gift card and be done with it."
I let out a relaxed sigh. "Thank you for the save."
"You know her. She needs to be the first for any kind of news." He wrinkled his nose, jarring his glasses a little askew. "How are you holding up?"
"I feel the pressure. I already know Ma's planning something, but I don't know what. She is determined that I have a plus-one for the wedding. At least you're good in that department. How are things with Jack?"
"Good! I think I have prepared him for the family. He'll be ready for Cynthia's wedding."
Jack McCrae stepped into Uncle Michael's life six months ago after I invited Michael to Jack's photography exhibit and introduced them. Two months later, I had the formal pleasure of "meeting him" over hotpot. Jack was an energetic and passionate photographer. His photographs left me with an enigma. I wanted to know more about his subjects and the story behind them all. The portraits of my uncle were unabashed love letters: pictures that caught my uncle in his joyful moments. I didn't need to be present to know the photographer contributed to said happiness: I had witnessed it firsthand on numerous occasions.
This man loved Uncle Michael.
"Maybe you can bring a friend instead?" he asked. "That might placate your mother for now."
"I have no friends unless you count the cousins. And one of them betrayed me by getting married."
"The horde" comprised the twenty-seven fourth-generation cousins; not enough for a full football roster, but enough for two teams of softball in the summer. The sports activities were fun, but I preferred the wine and painting nights.
"If you and your aunt haven't decided where to eat, I know just the place." He offered his arm and escorted me to the exit, where Auntie Faye was waiting.
Uncle Michael chose a quiet Indian fusion restaurant ten minutes away, and while we browsed the menu, I ordered mango lassis for all three of us. My uncle and aunt were engrossed in a conversation about the lavish prizes and ongoing bets on who would win the aunties' upcoming annual mahjong tournament. The tension eased from my shoulders as I sipped the delicious drink in peace.
Without intention I spied a pattern in the golden droplets clinging to the glass. My stomach churned as the taste of buttermilk pancakes soaked in maple syrup flooded my mouth. A prophecy coalesced like hard, round candy until it pushed against my teeth and expanded.
"Johnny is planning to propose to Andria next Tuesday and she will accept, but only if the proposal involves an inherited diamond citrine ring."
Auntie Faye leaped from her chair, kissed me on the cheek, and excused herself as she pulled out her phone while heading outside for some privacy-ironic considering she was about to broadcast gossip.
Uncle Michael leaned in and whispered, "Every time that happens, I wonder if it's painful."
"It's uncomfortable. That's about it," I replied. A string of happiness danced within me before vanishing like the notes from a plucked harp. They were replaced by a throbbing in my right temple. I hadn't had a headache in a while. I dismissed it as a sign I was either tired or hungry.
"There's no guarantee when it'll happen," I continued. "Ma and the aunties have tried more than enough times to compel it out of me. Of course, they failed. I'm just happy it's not something horrible this time."
"Have you talked to Evelyn?"
Aunt Evelyn was a member of the San Francisco Yus: the more prosperous branch with the tea import-export empire. My limb of the family tree, the Palo Alto Yus, operated the accounting firm that supported the tea business. A respected clairvoyant, she and I disagreed regarding our "gift." We last spoke after I had invited her to the Andy Warhol exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We hadn't left the lobby before quarreling. She went home. I walked through the museum alone.
"I don't think she's happy with me. I spent my whole life avoiding her attempts to educate me. Every time I try to talk to her about it, we argue. You'd think, of all the people in the world, we'd be on the same page." I sighed, and traced the rim of the empty glass. "All she cares about is the rules and how we need to follow them."
"I think you two have more in common than you realize. As for this prophecy, it's going to be complicated. If the ring is what I think it is, Johnny will need to grovel."
I stifled a giggle.
Auntie Faye returned and sucked in her lips. "Aiyah, this is not going to be easy. What kind of ring again?"
I repeated the description.
She tapped her temple. "We have to find this ring. We know Johnny can't do better. The girl is a catch, and we can't let her get away from the family."
I glanced over to see my favorite uncle attempting to hide his amusement.
"Auntie Faye, maybe you should ask Uncle Michael?"
"Michael, who owns the ring?" she demanded.
"Ning. It was bequeathed to her by Great-Auntie Nancy three years ago."
Auntie Faye's indignation peppered the air along with a litany of Hokkien and Mandarin curses. My fluency with the dialect was pidgin, limited to food and numbers. The previous generation's enrollment in Chinese school cemented their command of Mandarin, while their parents spoke Hokkien at home. The cousins and I were spared language education, but not music lessons. Uncle Michael once joked that if our generation wanted to form a symphony, we could.
"Ning can't stand him. She won't give him the ring," Auntie Faye hissed. "Remember the family picnic at Mitchell Park? She couldn't stop complaining about him, saying that he has more metal on his face than a Honda Civic."
Uncle Michael smiled. "The solution is easy. Have him take her out to dinner. Upscale and French. He needs to shave first and borrow something fashionable from Chester's closet. Also, buy a bottle of pinot grigio in the fifty-dollar range. Ning loves her wines. It'll help sweeten the pot."
"Ah, Michael, you're so smart. This is why I love you." Auntie Faye patted his cheek, then turned to me. The heat from her focused gaze caused a bead of sweat to trickle down my temple. "Now that Johnny is getting married . . ."
My time was running out.
Yu formal family functions are a symphony of chaos, and weddings were no exception. Nuptials ranged from traditional to Western with a scandalous elopement or two. Every Yu injected a quirk of their own, and Cynthia was no different: she rescheduled the tea ceremony with the groom's family to after the ten-course reception dinner. Cynthia would have moved the entire wedding ceremony to the evening if her mother, Auntie Gloria, hadn't threatened to kill her youngest daughter. Only after Cynthia stated that she would be late to her own wedding did her mother agree to delay the tea ceremony. Cynthia did rack up the most tardies despite living ten minutes away from her high school.
I relaxed in the safety of the hotel's rooftop garden. The dinner reception in the grand ballroom wouldn't begin for another hour. Uncle Michael and Jack kept me company. Jack, introduced to the family earlier this morning, had been swarmed with affection. The escape twenty floors up was for our mutual benefit.
"Brace yourself," Uncle Michael warned, breaking the silence. "Your mother mentioned to me that she has a prospect in mind."
I winced. My fingers pinched a piece of the embroidered lavender skirt of my cocktail dress. Feeling the fine needlework's bumps and ridges soothed my elevated nerves. "He's probably already here. Ma always comes prepared."
Jack added, "Weddings are always the breeding ground for setups."
Reading Group Guide
Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim
1. Do you believe in destiny? Why or why not?
2. Families are a big part of Vanessa’s life: both her nuclear and her extended. How do you think this affects her life positively and negatively?
3. Vanessa and Evelyn have a complicated relationship. Do you believe they are in conflict because they are too alike or too different? Why?
4. Paris is an iconic tourist destination. If you had to take fortune-telling lessons yourself, where would your ideal locale be?
5. Vanessa has a fear of her fortune-telling gift. She never wanted it. If you were given this gift, would you accept it? Why or why not?
6. Vanessa and Evelyn share a love for French pastries. Do you have a favorite dessert or snack? Is there a significance to it?
7. Family secrets are a common theme in Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop. Why do you think Evelyn was so guarded about her personal life? What is she afraid of?
8. The blue butterfly and the wind are two important recurring symbols in the novel. What do they represent, and where do you see them?
9. Fortune-tellers do not have red threads. Vanessa is adamant about the unfairness of it all, while Evelyn is resigned to her fate. Why is there such a difference in their points of view?