I like the premise of this book. As other readers have pointed out, it is really two stories set simultaneously in Japan and France in 1870. The beauty and intrigue in the novel comes from the similarities and parallels and differences between the two places.
Both stories pivot around the relationships between one woman and several men; both feature a "broken" man who has significant damage to his lower limbs; both deal with love and loss and war and poverty; both show a remarkable amount of freedom and independence for the women (especially given the time and this feels like a historical inaccuracy to me); both deal with illegitimate pregnancies; both have a "trouble maker" who riles up the powerful man in order to persecute the besotted other.
The stories also highlight the differences between western and eastern cultures. The most prestigious man (out of the main characters) in the Japanese story is the potter, while in the French story it is the merchant (and both stories have merchants); the eastern world is pre-occupied with becoming more western (and this might just be a racial bias because the book is written by a westerner), while the western world simply appreciates the products of the east.
Ultimately, it is the painting that unites these two worlds. The painting with which Jorgan becomes obsessed (seeing it as a talisman for Natalia's return) and with which Ayoshi relives her affair with her former lover. Clearly, she is supposed to be a talented painter (and Sato presses her to commercialize herself), but one wonders if the beauty and power in her work comes from the fact that it is hidden. If she knew that everyone (Hayashi included) would see the work it might not be as powerful.
I was unsure of the historical accuracy of some of the details. First (as mentioned above), it seemed way too forward thinking towards women's rights. I was astounded that Natalia would go to war (I'm assuming there was a female brigade) and glad to see that Pierre was offended by it, but just in general could not quite believe it. I was also astounded that Hayashi would be so accepting of Ayoshi's freedom. I would not think that he would allow her to spend all her time painting and being dismissive of him; I was also surprised that she was allowed to go to town (and then Tokoyo) unchaperoned; and again when she has the discussion with Sato about not being challenged. I just don't believe that these are typical thoughts for 1870. Second, the scene in which the doctor gives Jorgan a prescription for his pain seemed odd. I don't see this as historically accurate; the doctor might have sent him to the apothecary, but the whole image of ripping a paper off his prescription pad and handing it out felt way too modern.
I thought the fact that Jorgan ended up with both Ayoshi's painting and Hayashi's Dutchman's journal a bit too much. Seriously, the fact that he gets two pieces of the Japanese story is just unbelievable. I also thought the ending of the French piece was ridiculous. Completely unbelievable that not only does she see the balloon overhead, but saves Jorgan.
I was annoyed that the monk did not have a name. Yes, I get that he is a symbol for the whole Buddist tradition that is persecuted by the government, however we also get to see how and why he is different from the other monks. The whole point of the story is in his inner fight between his desires and individuality and his struggle to maintain his traditional lifestyle. He should have had a name.
Overall it was a quick and entertaining read, but nothing spectacular.