The Teahouse Fire

( 16 )


“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 ...

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The Teahouse Fire

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“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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly

Those expecting another great audio, like Elaine Erika Davis's rendition of Memoirs of a Geisha, are sure to be disappointed, but the plodding pace of this new work of history cloaked under a fictional kimono is not the fault of Barbara Caruso but of its author. The minute details of the tea ceremony as it was transformed by historical events are not interspersed with enough plot for Caruso to keep the story moving. Unfortunately, Aurelia's obsession with Yukako, who saved her from the sad fate of European orphans in a strange land, is the subplot of Yukako's drive to save the tea ceremony from obscurity. Caruso gives Aurelia's voice all the wide-eyed wonder of Gulliver among the Lilliputians, but since Aurelia recounts her life in her old age, this tone is a bit forced. Yukako and other women are nicely individualized, but men tend to grunt out their words. Listeners fascinated by Japanese history will be rewarded by a compelling look at an elegant tradition that is sadly too slow and ritualized for Americans who measure life in nanoseconds. Simultaneous release with the Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 30). (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Avery's compelling debut novel presents women who dare to challenge expectations in the changing cultural landscape of 19th-century Japan. The Shin family has taught the tea ceremony for generations, but daughter Yukako is expected to marry the next master teacher instead of assuming the role herself. When Yukako discovers white American Aurelia hiding from her abusive missionary uncle on the Shin estate, she takes her in as a servant-companion and secretly teaches her the family arts. But can their friendship survive the changes that sweep Japan as the 20th century begins? Readers who enjoy historical fiction will be dazzled by Avery's attention to detail, savoring her descriptions of each kimono and tea implement. Those who like plot twists will relish the epic cast of characters who help and hinder Aurelia and Yukako as they mature. An homage to Virginia Woolf's Orlando in both style and theme, Avery's ambitious endeavor is the perfect companion for a series of cold winter nights. Recommended for medium to large fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/06.]-Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Japan welcomes the West in this historical tale from a first-time novelist. In 1865, Aurelia Bernard was a little girl living with her mother and her uncle, a Catholic priest, in New York. By 1866, she was an orphan, working as a servant for the Shin family in Kyoto. The head of the Shin household-a large, impressive old man Aurelia refers to as "the Mountain"-is a master of the tea ceremony. When the novel begins, the Mountain enjoys the high status and state-subsidized income of an artist. But Aurelia's story encompasses the Meiji period, when Japan was opened to Westerners and their modern ideas and technologies, and when indigenous phenomena like the tea ceremony-as well as its practitioners-continued to exist only by adapting to a strange new reality. This is not, however, the type of sweeping historical fiction that musters a cast of thousands. It is, instead, a record of one family's fortunes during a tumultuous time. The central character is not Urako-the name Aurelia receives from her new family-but Yukako, the Mountain's daughter. She's a compelling character, and Urako is an observant and generally eloquent chronicler. Readers who enjoy historical fiction for the exotic details will appreciate her depictions of women with blackened teeth, the care and maintenance of kimono and, of course, the intricacies of the tea ceremony. But Urako is, perhaps, a little too faithful to the history she's describing. Few events, it seems, are beneath her notice, and neither the narrator nor the author seems willing to distinguish interesting incidents from tedious bits of exposition. When the politics of the Meiji Restoration impoverish the Shin family, the Mountain's mother makes severaltrips to the pawn shop, while Yukako embarks on some rather bold and innovative entrepreneurial endeavors; the latter are much more exciting than the former, but both receive much the same narrative attention. Avery writes with a self-assured lyricism-her poetic images are often quite arresting, and only occasionally florid or cliched-but this doesn't entirely offset the glacial pace of the story. A confident, original but slightly wearying debut.
From the Publisher

“Caruso's captivating, rich voice perfectly mirrors the stately prose, brings life to all the characters, male and female, and shepherds listeners peacefully through all the complexities of decades of names, places, time and plot.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594482731
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/4/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 520,393
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ellis Avery

BARBARA CARUSO is an American graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She enjoys a rich acting career which has included Broadway, off Broadway, and many theaters across the country. On those stages she has performed in plays by Shakespeare, Chekov, Williams, O’Neil, and Neil Simon, to name but a few.

Spoken word audio is an important part of that career. Her countless recordings include the works of Edith Wharton, Margaret Atwood, Maeve Binchy, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, and children’s classics. AudioFile magazine has chosen her one of their Voices of the Century. She’s won numerous Earphones Awards, including for her narration of The Year of Magical Thinking (an Audie® Award finalist) and The House of Scorta, both published by HighBridge. She is the recipient of the Alexander Scourby Award, presented by the American Foundation for the Blind.

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Reading Group Guide


"When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one." —The Teahouse Fire

The answer to Aurelia Bernard's prayer—made at a Shinto shrine in the Japanese city of Miyako—comes in the form of a fire that consumes her Uncle Charles, the last blood relative she will ever know. The fatherless daughter of a French woman raised in New York City, Aurelia lost her mother on the eve of their departure for Japan with her Catholic missionary uncle. Now orphaned from both her family and her culture, she seeks refuge in the Baishian teahouse, where she is befriended by a beautiful young girl named Yukako, daughter of the great tea master who heads the Shin family. Despite Aurelia's ignorance of their language and customs, the Shins take her into their household, giving her a new name, Urako, and introducing her to the ancient rites and rituals of Chado—the Way of Tea.

Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire offers an intimate window onto the dramatic social upheavals of late-nineteenth-century Japan, as an ancient Eastern culture attempts to remake itself in the image of the rapidly modernizing West. The story of Urako—born of one society, educated in another, forever an outsider to both—mirrors the story of Meiji-era Japan as a whole, seduced by the strange new ideas of a foreign world but still tied to the ways of the past. Urako learns the temae, or steps, of the tea ceremony from the Shins, whose family has taught the ritual to Japan's rulers for nearlythree centuries. At the same time, she is indoctrinated into the rigid social order of the day, where one's position in society is determined by birth and a woman's fate is determined by the wishes of her father and husband. But within a few years of Urako's arrival these engrained traditions have begun to erode, bringing new hardships alongside new opportunities.

The Emperor declares the era one of Meiji, or "Enlightened Rule," and the centuries-old social order of Japan vanishes overnight. The old caste system—with the venerated samurai on top and the despised eta, or "unclean," as the lowest of the low—is abolished, and many fortunes reverse dramatically. The tea ceremony is declared an archaic "pastime" to be abandoned, and the imperial stipends that supported the Shins' tea school, and the families of its samurai pupils, are abruptly discontinued. At the same time, the new social mobility of the era raises ambitious members of the merchant caste to positions of power and wealth, so much so that Yukako is gladly offered in marriage to a bumbling former pupil, whose merchant family's affluence now far surpasses that of the young samurai she was once promised to—and whom she still loves.

But while the old traditions have been officially disavowed, there remains a craving amongst the newly elevated classes for the trappings of the old aristocracy. Seizing on this sentiment, Yukako revives her family's business by tossing aside old taboos and teaching the once male-dominated Chado rituals to the young girls in the nation's now-Westernized school system. As years and decades pass, Urako stays loyally by the side of her adopted "older sister," accepting her role as dutiful vassal while secretly nurturing her desire for more. And eventually Yukako's growing ambitions run aground, culminating in a heartbreaking evening tea ceremony that leaves both her relationship with Urako and their beloved Baishian teahouse in ashes.

Ellis Avery studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto, and now teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, Kyoto Journal, LIT, and Pacific Reader, as well as onstage at New York's Expanded Arts Theater.


  • "In the tea world there is a phrase, ichigo ichie. One moment, one meeting. Every moment is what it the end, in the deepest sense, there are no mistakes." As with many aspects of the tea ceremony, this concept seems to speak to a broader truth about life in general. Does this idea tie in, in your mind, with the overall themes of the novel? Which characters best embody this ideal? Do you agree with their approach to life?
  • Although certain aspects of nineteenth century Japanese society—such as the caste system—are quite foreign to the Western world, the underlying constrictions seem similar: Urako's uncle creates a fictional dead husband for her mother in order to hide the shame of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, much as characters like Aki and Hazu must hide the shame of their own parentage. In what other ways are similarities between Eastern and Western society evident in the novel? In what ways are those societies fundamentally different?
  • In the novel, Japanese names carry great significance—enough so that Koito's connection to Yukako's family and the Baishian tea house is revealed by analyzing the characters that make up their names. How is the Japanese way of naming different from the way it is done in Western societies? Do the differences say anything significant about the differences between each society as a whole?
  • When Urako is assaulted by Jiro, she mentally compares the experience to being menaced by her Uncle Charles years before. Do you think Aurelia is responsible for Uncle Charles's death? Do you think her apparent lack of guilt is justified?
  • The Teahouse Fire is filled with objects whose significance goes far beyond their function: Jiro's Lightning tea bowl, Yukako's final gift of a wastewater bowl made of wood salvaged from Baishian. Does Yukako's mass-marketing of tea wares dilute the meaning of such objects? Or, like Urako's Saint Claire medal, do objects gain their significance not through the care with which they were made, but through the meaning we attribute to them?
  • In many ways, Yukako's success in marketing her tea sets represents a surrender of traditional culture to the demands—and opportunities—of modern capitalism. How do you feel about this trade-off? Does the commercialization of the tea ceremony—or any tradition—erode its purity? Is the revising of ancient cultural practices to fit modern needs something to be mourned or celebrated?
  • Urako makes three prayers in the course of the novel. The first—any life but this one—is followed by the apparent death of her uncle; the second—make something happen... make him [Nao] leave—comes shortly before Kenji and Aki attempt suicide; and the last—to be happy—is made as Urako prepares to make a new life in America. What do Urako's prayers tell us about the evolution of her approach to life? What meaning do you place on the way those prayers are "answered"?
  • While it seems certain that Yukako started the fire in the Baishian teahouse, it remains unclear whether she did so intentionally. What do you think happened?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    insightful historical tale

    Now an elderly woman, Aurelia Bernard looks back on her life starting with the pivotal event in 1865 New York when her mother is dying and her missionary Uncle Charles takes his nine years old niece with him to Japan to do the Lord¿s work. Less than a year later in Kyoto, he is dead and Aurelia is taken in as a servant to the Shin family by their teenage daughter Yukako. The patriarch head of the Shin brood, dubbed ¿Mountain¿ by Aurelia who the locals call Urako, is a grandmaster teacher of the tea ceremony temae. However, the western invasion with its technology has made tradition look ancient so unless experts like the Mountain make a paradigm switch to adapt to the invasion, they will become like the dinosaur. As it is, the Meiji government has withdrawn its subsidies to the arts like the temae ceremonial rite. Mountain worries that his legacy will not survive his offspring Yukako and there is little he can do even as he is humiliated watching his mother and his spouse sell valuables at horrendous deflationary prices to pawn dealers. Worse Yukako rejects tradition as she easily adapts to the economic opportunities the west has brought to Japan. --- THE TEAHOUSE FIRE is an insightful historical tale that provides the audience with a vivid look at mid nineteenth century Japan during a period of incredible change. The key players surprisingly are the father and daughter as Mountain sees his reason for living dying while Yukako hugs the new economy. Surprisingly Aurelia is more symbolic as a stranded westerner. The amount of information slows the plot somewhat, but armchair traveling fans will appreciate this trip to Japan where tradition is losing the battle to outside influences. --- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2013

    great book!

    Great book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2009

    interesting novel

    I really loved this japanese adventure! it takes place in a very interesting time period and is full of japanese culture! i loved the characters and escaping to japan to go to a tea ceremony. I wasn't quite prepared for the lesbian scenes, but here's your warning! :)

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  • Posted August 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful story

    I truly enjoyed Barbara Caruo's wonderful reading of this book. Her accents and voice differentiations ranged from lilting to grunting and added a depth to each character as the story progressed. Some areas were a bit difficult to follow as the detail was substantial. But, the author quickly grabs the reader back again as each little sub-plot unfolds. Sadly, the beautiful traditions and "rules" for tea ceremonies lose their significance in Japanese culture as influence of the west infiltrates at the turn of the century.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2008

    Great read!

    Ellis Avery clearly knows Japan and tea ceremony well,from an insider point of view, yet she communicates the meaning and symbolism of the temae in easily understood terms.<BR/><BR/>There were places where the plot jumped unexpectedly and the story was very pleasing. Good character development and great descriptions. From the first page, the author caught me with her description of voices - one as a cello the other as an oboe. She had me in her pocket from that point on.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2008


    Not being familiar with 19th century Japan, this audio book served as a passport into that fascinating world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2008

    A reviewer

    This book was one of many that I thought could have been better. It was a slow read but to me it was easy to follow. I don't recommend this book to anyone who likes a lot of action because it lacks that aspect, but it is a good book to read when you're bored.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2007

    would not recommend

    I am very disappointed with this book. It is a very slow read, and it is very hard to follow. I do not like to give up, so I am forcing myself to finish the book, but it is difficult. Sadly, I would not recommend this book.

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