Like attending seasons of elegant tea parties each one resplendent with character and drama. Delicious. Maxine Hong Kingston The story of two women whose lives intersect in late-nineteenth-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire is also a portrait of one of the most fascinating places and times in all of history Japan as it opens its doors to the West. It was a period when wearing a different color kimono could make a political statement, when women stopped blackening their teeth to profess an allegiance to Western ideas, and when Japan's most mysterious rite the tea ceremony became not just a sacramental meal, but a ritual battlefield. We see it all through the eyes of Aurelia, an American orphan adopted by the Shin family, proprietors of a tea ceremony school, after their daughter, Yukako, finds her hiding on their grounds. Aurelia becomes Yukako's closest companion, and they, the Shin family, and all of Japan face a time of great challenges and uncertainty. Told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.
In 1865, nine-year-old Aurelia Caillard is taken from New York to Japan by her missionary uncle Charles while her ailing mother dies at home. Charles soon vanishes in a fire (not the one of the title), leaving Aurelia orphaned and alone in Kyoto. She is taken in by Yukako, the teenage daughter of the Shin family, master teachers of temae, or tea ceremony. Aurelia, narrating as an elderly woman, tells of living as Yukako's servant and younger sister, and how what begins as grateful puppy love for Yukako matures over years into a deeply painful unrequited obsession. Against a backdrop of a convulsively Westernizing Japan, Avery brings the conflicts of modernization into the teahouse, and into Aurelia and Yukako's beds, where jealousy over lovers threatens to tear them apart. In one memorable instance, Yukako, struggling to bring money in for the family, crosses class lines and gives temae lessons to a geisha in exchange for lessons on the shamisen, a seductive (and potentially profitable) string instrument. Eventually stuck in a painful marriage, Yukako labors to adapt the ancient tea ceremony to the changing needs of the modern world, resulting in a breathtaking confrontation. Avery, making her debut, has crafted a magisterial novel that is equal parts love story, imaginative history and bildungsroman, a story as alluring as it is powerful. (Jan.)
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December 03, 2007
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