Review: The Teahouse Fire

I actually finished this about two weeks ago, but I needed time to digest it before I wrote any kind of commentary on it.

This isn’t quite on my “I’m ashamed I haven’t read this” book list, but it has been on my “to read” pile for years (literally for years. It had dust on it). I noticed the library had it on audiobook so I picked it up for my commute-listening-pleasure.

The book was…. interesting. There was a lot I enjoyed (especially given how much I enjoy Japanese tea ceremony). A lot of what she discusses in the process is similar to the “Tea Club” lessons I was able to participate in when I spent a semester in Japan. I would never try to replicate tea ceremony, but I can appreciate the dance, art, and skill.

So, to begin let me say that I never felt the main character grew up. Aurelia (the protagonist) never tries to understand the Japanese people. She is incredibly passive for most of her life. She makes for a difficult protagonist to like, much less enjoy. I rarely, if ever, felt like she was making discrete choices which drove the plot. I wanted her to have more aspiration and to express her goals.

The book won awards for lesbian fiction (I didn’t know this when I started it, only when I looked it up on Goodreads later). And honestly, I was thoroughly confused if Aurelia was a lesbian or just so damn passive she would sleep with whoever came onto her (she does sleep with a man as well and doesn’t seem to hate it). Her relationships never really SPOKE of true consent, and this was written in 2006 when these conversations were really beginning to be out there… maybe I’m being too harsh on that point but I think it’s compounded by her passivity that it bothers me.

The world and the imagery were beautiful. The characters around Aurelia were deep, flawed, interesting, and engaging. But Aurelia herself? Mostly a blank slate to observe the others. And those others – that is where Ellis Avery gave me a book I enjoyed. The twists and turns of the rise of the Meji era (which I do kind of love that era of Japanese history!). I felt like she did her research and showed me the Japan of the 1880s-1900s.

Am I glad I read this book? Absolutely! Would I necessarily recommend it to others? ….If the person loves the setting and that era – yes. Like a Phillippa Gregory book, I think this is a relatively limited audience and you have to be willing to look past the protagonist and enjoy the perspective of the narrative. It IS a fun book about Japan and tea ceremony.