For the Historical Tapestry challenge. Note there are 2 As here!
At the end of the American civil war, young Aurelia, through a series of tragic turns, finds herself transported from New York and orphaned and alone in Japan. She stumbles upon a teamaster's estate at a time when Japan is closing itself to all foreigners. Through the good fortune of her dark hair and the kind heart of the teamaster's daughter, Aurelia is taken in and becomes a servant to the family, presumed by her benefactors to be traumatized and ugly but still Japanese. Ellis Avery's story chronicles the girl's development into a young woman just as Japan evolves into a modern nation.
The novel does a lovely job of capturing the beauty and mystique of temae, the Japanese tea ceremony. Avery spent years studying temae, yet she makes it accessible to the novice without being didactic. In fact, I think it'd be accurate to consider tea as a separate character in the novel, as tea helps define the characters while they, in turn, struggle to keep temae relevant in changing, modernizing Japan. Similarly, Aurelia struggles with her identity, trying to reconcile her Westerness with her new, adopted Japanese-ness. After decades in Japan, her native languages hang awkwardly on her tongue, illustrating vividly the internal conflicts she faces.
The two central tensions of the book are Aurelia's identity conflict and her romantic travails. The first is illustrated with delicacy and poignancy. The second, however, rang a little false to me. Without dropping any spoilers here, I will just say that Aurelia's unflailing devotion to one love, who seems to use her, as well as her lingering passion for another love after a brief encounter, both felt a little difficult to understand. But, with a touching ending (I think I teared up), The Teahouse Fire is a beautiful, sensitive book that leaves the reader satisfied, if longing for a little whisked tea.