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The Teahouse Fire Hardcover – December 28, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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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Avery, a longtime student of the Japanese tea ceremony, has set her first novel in late-nineteenth-century Japan, when that tradition-steeped nation gradually exposed itself to the modern West. She weaves a memorable saga of two women: Yukako, the daughter of a respected "tea advisor" to feudal lords, and Aurelia, a French orphan who traveled to Kyoto at age nine with her uncle, and was adopted by the tea master's family after he died. Avery adroitly conveys the intricacies of the tea ceremony, "the language of diplomacy," and the subtle ways in which it was transformed as Japan moved from a Shogun society to one ruled by the emperor. At the same time, she illuminates other social changes, such as the arrival of the steam engine, women no longer blackening their teeth, and the lifting of the ban on Christianity. Aurelia remains Yukako's stalwart friend through doomed romances and a disappointing marriage, telling her, when Yukako resumes her father's tea ceremonies after his death, "You took an art that could have died, and you made it live." Deborah Donovan
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