First-time novelist Nina Schuyler weaves an intricate and lyrical account of a painting that affects the lives of people in vastly different settings. Ayoshi, a beautiful young Japanese artist, has shamed her parents and is forced to enter into an arranged marriage. She finds herself wed to a man suffering physical and emotional pain of his own. Ayoshi’s primary marital task is to tend to husband Hayashi’s feet, which as a child were horrifically burned in a fire set by feudal warlords that killed the rest of his family to punish them for rebellion. Now a talented potter and official for the new Japanese government, Hayashi struggles to adapt to demands to entirely abandon the old traditions and religion. Ayoshi feels oppressed by her husband’s pervasive sadness and repulsed by his blackened and scarred feet. Her only release lies in painting scenes of her life with a former lover, and when her husband ships some of his pottery off to markets in Europe, Ayoshi tucks one of her paintings in with the shipment.
In Paris a young soldier has humiliatingly lost a leg in the Franco-Prussian war. Jorgen is released from a military hospital and assisted in finding a job in an import shop by his nurse, Natalia. When Natalia becomes attached to Jorgen, he at first scorns her affection as trivial amidst the devastating losses of the war. Natalia then decides to become a soldier herself and sets off for the fighting. Discovering the Japanese painting and hiding it in his dreary room, Jorgen finds relief from his self-loathing within the beauty of it’s haunting depiction of yearning lovers. Realizing his love for Natalia, Jorgen sets off to return her safely home.
At the conclusion of this riveting tale, Jorgen and Natalia find contentment after the end of the war. Hayashi finds his true honor, and Ayoshi hopes to leave melancholy and chaos behind as she boards a ship bound for a new start in America.