Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Scent of Sake by Joyce Lebra

One woman's sense of duty and tradition is at the heart of Joyce Lebra's The Scent of Sake, which is set in Japan in the mid- to late-1800s. Rie Omura comes from a long line of Japanese sake brewers, and guilt over her brother's death at age 2 on her watch--which meant the loss of the heir to the house--makes Rie determined to one day make her family brand of sake, White Tiger, number one in Japan. Rie knows from an early age that the house, inextricably linked to the family sake business, and its reputation come first above all things.

The Scent of Sake opens with Rie understanding that her parents will soon choose an adopted husband for her, a mukoyoshi who eventually will succeed her father as head of the house. Rie loves Saburo Kato, but his position as third son in a well-known brewing family means there is no chance for their future. She is forced to marry Jihei, a man she does not find attractive but must submit to in order to produce an heir. She soon learns the meaning of her mother's talk about "killing the self" in order to survive, as Jihei doesn't take the business as seriously as she does and spends his nights with his geisha lovers.

Rie is not like other daughters of brewing families. She has a keen sense of timing when it comes to business deals, and the advice she provides about diversifying the business gives the Omura House and White Tiger a competitive advantage numerous times over the years. Her father gives her the official seal of the Omura House, and with it, power every every decision made by the house. Sake brewing is a man's world--a woman cannot set foot in the kura, where the sake is brewed, for fear of contamination--so you can imagine the conflicts this creates between Rie, Jihei, and their son, Yoshitaro. Rie is always scheming, whether it involves innovation in sake brewing and distribution or the marriages and house status of her children and grandchildren.

I had mixed feelings about Rie. She is a very complex, intriguing character, and I was drawn to her immediately, as I enjoy stories about women who defy gender expectations. I really felt for her at the beginning when she was miserable in her marriage, but as the years passed, Rie seemed to harden and appeared to have no second thoughts about forcing her children and grandchildren into lives she hadn't wanted for herself at that age. However, I could understand why Rie acted the way she did, given the importance placed on duty, loyalty, tradition, and business.

Lebra is recognized as an expert on Japanese culture, and the author's note at the back of the book indicates that she spent time in sake brewing houses as part of her research. In The Scent of Sake, Lebra provides a glimpse of a well-respected industry in Japan in the late 19th century, encompassing family tensions, social mores, politics, and survival in less than ideal situations. This is a must-read for those interested in Japanese culture, family stories that span multiple generations, or strong female characters. The Scent of Sake is slated for release on Feb. 17 by Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The Scent of Sake also was reviewed by:

Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker
Ramya's Bookshelf

If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!


Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Scent of Sake from HarperCollins for review purposes.

17 comments:

Serena said...

Sounds like an intriguing read. I wonder if the Geishas are meant to be that way...I thought they were for entertainment...not necessarily the down-and-dirty.

Julie P. said...

You're such a lucky duck to get that book. Looks so interesting!

Scobberlotcher said...

That one sounds very interesting. Thanks!

bermudaonion said...

That looks so good - I love reading about other cultures.

Jo-Jo said...

This sounds like a good book. Have you tried sake? Our book club had some together after reading Memoirs of a Geisha and YUK! lol

Alea said...

I've been learning a bit about sake the last year or so for work. Could be interesting!

Iliana said...

That's interesting what you said about her actions as she grows older. I'm intrigued now because of course you expect a character to change. I think this would definitely make for an interesting read. It's on my list!

PopinFresh said...

This sounds like a great read. I'll be adding this to my wish list.

~ Popin

Alyce said...

Wonderful review! This book definitely sounds like something I would like.

Dar said...

Wow, you're doing really well with your reading this year. This book sounds interesting and for me it's always good to learn something I wouldn't have known about before.

Amy said...

This will be a must read for me. I love everything Japanese. :)

Serena...for another glimpse at geishas, I recommend Autobiography of a Geisha. One of the best though heartbreaking books on geishas I've read.

Ladytink_534 said...

I haven't read too many books like this but the ones I have I enjoyed. I might have to add this to my list, thanks!

S. Krishna said...

This one sounds really interesting! Thanks for the review!

Jeannie said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. You find such unique books to review- thanks!

tanabata said...

I'm always interested in books dealing with Japanese culture and society. I'll have to try to keep an eye out for this one.

naida said...

This does sound great. I read Memoirs of a Geisha, and it was fascinating. This reminds me a bit of that one.
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Literary Feline said...

I am definitely interested in reading this one. Thank you for the great review, Anna. I love learning about other cultures.