The Teahouse Fire

The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101217528
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/04/2007
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 245,141
File size: 967 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ellis Avery’s first novel, The Teahouse Fire, set in the tea ceremony world of nineteenth-century Japan, has been translated into five languages and has won three awards, including the American Library Association Stonewall Award. Avery is also the author of The Smoke Week, an award-winning 9/11 memoir. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Provides true pleasure to the intellect and all the senses."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Ellis Avery studied tea ceremony for several years, so it makes sense that the ritual dominates her first novel. She shares every subtlety of the ancient art...Attention to detail is admirable...Urako is a compelling character."
Entertainment Weekly

"Saturated with color and detail; [Avery] manages to make nineteenth-century Japan both accessible and exotic, infusing her story with a sense of dignified calm...[A] deeply engrossing, multifaceted work."
The Boston Globe

"A magisterial novel that is equal parts love story, imaginative history and bildungsroman, a story as alluring as it is powerful."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A memorable saga...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 vivid period details."

"Avery writes with a self-assured lyricism...Quite arresting...confident [and] original."
Kirkus Reviews

"Readers who enjoy historical fiction will be dazzled by Avery's attention to detail, savoring her descriptions...Those who like plot twists will relish the epic cast of characters...An homage to Virgina Woolf's Orlando in both style and theme, Avery's ambitious andeavor is the perfect companion for a series of cold winter nights."
Library Jounral

"In The Teahouse Fire, aesthetic rules vie with politics, sex, and human feeling. Avery has whipped up a heady brew."
—Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki 

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?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Teahouse Fire 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
    harstan More than 1 year ago
    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
    nicole_a_davis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    An interesting book, but it seems like the author wrote it more to tell about the ins and outs of the tea ceremony than because she had a real story to tell. The narrative was a bit boring, but the images the author created made it worth sticking with.
    belgrade18 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A beautifully written and well paced book set in Japan during the transitional years of the Meiji Restoration (1865-1890). I read it before and during a trip to Japan, and it helped me place so much that I saw and experienced there- aesthetic sensibilities, gift giving and packaging, serious business sense, embracing and rejecting the latest technologies, unease about tradition vs. modernity, etc. Yes, it is somewhat long, and there isn't a lot of action outside the Shin family compound, but well crafted and highly recommended for those with an interest in Japanese culture and society.
    princesshaiku on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The tale of "The Teahouse Fire," by Ellis Avery is set in late nineteenth century Japan. The story plunges deeply into the smoky brew of an entangled relationship, between the daughter of a Japanese Tea Master and a French orphan seeking asylum from a life as a convent domestic. Like the roots of a plum tree, the two girls grow up twisted around each other in an ambiguous context of love and cultural dissonance. Japan edges towards modernism as the characters seek identity and spiritual meaning, in a tragic denouement guaranteed to keep the pages turning.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Great book!
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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! :)
    SuzieQNJ More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.

    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Not being familiar with 19th century Japan, this audio book served as a passport into that fascinating world.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.