The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery
"A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women-one American, one Japanese-whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan."
Sounds promising, doesn't it? In spite of some lukewarm Goodreads reviews, I thought the book was worth a risk. It started off interesting, with French girl Aurelia arriving in New York with her single mother to live with her priest uncle. She ends up going to Japan with her uncle to convert a "heathen" Japan. Ultimately, she becomes adopted by a Japanese family who treats her as a servant girl, but all she's ever knowin in her life is service.
Yukako, the young woman who discovers Aurelia and takes her under her wing, is the daughter of a great tea ceremony master. Much of the book is about the ancient art of tea ceremony and how it evolves, particularly with the passing of the Shogun and the ushering in of the Meiji era modernizations.
Aurelia leads a sad life...she's not only lost her mother--the only person she ever loved--but she also is shunned and misunderstood as a foreigner living in Japan in this time. Yukako comes across as a strong, stubborn woman who uses her limited place in the family to bring reforms and save the tea dynasty. But she's not incredibly likable. It's fascinating to consider how little has changed in Japan since this novel's setting. Although women have more options now than they did then, Japanese culture is still strongly rooted in patriarchy.
The Teahouse Fire, obviously meticulously researched, gets bogged down in too many details and characters. I found it difficult to get into and was looking forward to its end. So ultimately, disappointing.