Peony In Love – Lisa See
From Publisher’s Weekly -
Set in 17th-century China, See’s fifth novel is a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a family saga and a work of musical and social history. As Peony, the 15-year-old daughter of the wealthy Chen family, approaches an arranged marriage, she commits an unthinkable breach of etiquette when she accidentally comes upon a man who has entered the family garden. Unusually for a girl of her time, Peony has been educated and revels in studying The Peony Pavilion, a real opera published in 1598, as the repercussions of the meeting unfold. The novel’s plot mirrors that of the opera, and eternal themes abound: an intelligent girl chafing against the restrictions of expected behavior; fiction’s educative powers; the rocky path of love between lovers and in families. It figures into the plot that generations of young Chinese women, known as the lovesick maidens, became obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, and, in a Werther-like passion, many starved themselves to death. See offers meticulous depiction of women’s roles in Qing and Ming dynasty China (including horrifying foot-binding scenes) and vivid descriptions of daily Qing life, festivals and rituals. Peony’s vibrant voice, perfectly pitched between the novel’s historical and passionate depths, carries her story beautifully—in life and afterlife.
My thoughts -
Ok, so I can’t say that this was really great for me, but I can say that I appreciate this book a lot more than I enjoyed it. Let me explain what I mean.
See, the book starts out with Peony narrating, she’s going to turn 16 and get into an arranged marriage and everything in her life is perfect because she’s rich and spoiled and even educated, etc. BUT then she meets this guy – which is completely forbidden – and they have an “affair” which basically consists of them having 2 conversations, and she decides she is in love with him. Which is a real problem because they are both supposed to be getting married in the next few months. So because Peony is so “lovesick” she becomes obsessed with this opera, The Peony Pavilion (this is how she met her lover, while going to see this opera with her family), and she starves herself because she is so sad that she has to marry a stranger when she is in love with someone else.
And then … SPOILER ALERT … she dies. I know, right? I was TOTALLY not expecting this to happen (it’s not TOO much of a spoiler because it happens like a quarter of the way through the book). So the ENTIRE rest of the book is told from Peony’s perspective as she is wandering through the afterworld as a “hungry ghost” because her family never performs the correct death rituals. It’s all very interesting and complicated, what happens after she dies, but to tell you the truth, I was annoyed because I wanted her to get into her arranged marriage, and find out what would happen there… the book went an entirely different direction than I had expected and I was really thrown off by that and also a bit disappointed (ok, a lot disappointed).
However, once I got over the shock, the story of Peony in the afterworld did end up being kind of interesting, and I liked where the book went with it. But I still wasn’t too happy with the whole situation and I didn’t love the book.
BUT then I read the author’s note after I finished the book, and I appreciate the novel a lot more having read that. Turns out a lot of the events that occurred in the book were based on historical events in 17th century China. And a lot of the back story had to do with women asserting themselves in a culture that demanded women not be seen or heard. The book talked a lot about the first publications done by women, including the first novels, operas, poetry, and commentary that were written by women in China during this time. See even mentioned the “Banana Garden Five” which was basically the first womens’ book club! Kind of cool, right?
So, all in all, this was a very interesting book which I would definitely recommend, but also not one of my favorites.
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