Protagonist gives all so 'house' can thrive


POSTED: Sunday, May 10, 2009

Everything must be done for the “;house.”; For this a woman will marry a man she cannot love, cover up his incompetence, take in his child when he is unfaithful. For this a woman will “;kill the self.”;





        » By Joyce Lebra

» Publisher: Avon


» $13.99




Sounds bleak, but when that's your life, what's the choice? In Rie Omura, the central character in “;The Scent of Sake,”; author Joyce Lebra creates a woman who understands all this, accepts it and learns to rise above. For the house.

Remember that bit of dialogue in “;My Big Fat Greek Wedding,”; when the mother explains that while the man might be the head of the house, the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head in whatever direction she chooses?

That's Rie, turning the head of House Omura, a respected sake-brewing family. She knows the business better than anyone, but she's a woman and an only child. At this time and place—Kobe, Japan, in the 1800s—women aren't even allowed into the sake “;kura,”; or brewery, for fear their presence will sour the sake.

So her family marries her to the second son in another brewing family, adopts her new husband and puts him in line for succession. This is a standard operating procedure, one of the many intriguing details that gives the novel its cultural depth.

Too bad the new husband is an idiot and a philanderer. Rie sheds a few tears but in the end sees his unfaithfulness as a way to build her family's dynasty—by raising his illegitimate children along with her own and making sure they all do their eventual duty by the house.

Lebra grew up in Hawaii and is the author of “;Shaping Hawai'i: The Voices of Women,”; among a dozen books largely rooted in Asian-Pacific issues. She has a doctorate in Japanese history and lived in Japan for several years.

Those credentials are reflected in the historic and cultural detail of “;The Scent of Sake.”; It's fascinating stuff, what Lebra relays about the business of sake, from a woman's point of view—especially the tangled web of family and finance.

As fiction, though, the storytelling can be a little too pat. Rie is so steadfast, so gifted, so incapable of error as she works through her father, then her husband, then her sons to guide the business through innovation after successful innovation. All while running the household and crafting advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren.

This novel would make a great Japanese-language soap opera, played out over several weeks of small-screen drama. That's a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your predisposition to the genre. Your reaction to the book would probably fall along the same lines.