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[129] Peony in Love – Lisa See

101.jpgThis book, which is a historical novel based on first-person accounts from the Ming-Qing transition (around 1700), is electrifying. Some of these accounts brutally explore the difference between volunteering to sacrifice yourself for your family and being volunteered because you’re believed to be of less value. Set in 17th century China, in an elaborate villa on the shores of Hangzhou’s West Lake, the novel begins when Peony, who soon to celebrate her coming-of-age 16th birthday, feels a flutter of anticipation for an opera performance that will take place at her house. The show is based on the classics The Peony Pavilions, which has been known for corrupting young women. Pampered and sheltered, her mother has trained her never to show her feelings, but when Peony reads the book, she feels love, sadness, and happiness. During the opera, she catches sight of a handsome, elegant young poet and is immediately overcome with emotion. Tempted to stay away from the show, she has a teta-e-tete with the young man Ren.

Meanwhile Peony’s marriage has been arranged. It’s hard for her to be excited because marriage to a stranger isn’t neccessary a happy one. Neither the bride nor the groom has any say in the match and therefore concubines are every woman’s fear. So Peony can’t help succumbing to her fate in which marriage is no more than a matter of duty and a way to provide sons who , in time, would continue the name of the husband’s family and perform rite in the ancestral hall. Before each goes back to prepare their own marriage, Peony and Ren share three nights of happiness under the moon during their brief rendevous.

Deep in the heart Peony fights the inveterate belief that woman should stay home and bear a son. With the outside world stripped away, she spends her life looking inward and her emotions are finely tuned. She finds all the places in The Peony Pavilions, which her mother eventually confiscates from her and burns, that illustrates her emotions. She examines her heart but is consumed by love sickness. When her comsumption has outwitted any medical cure, her family decides to sacrifice her—following the custom of all unmarried daughter in a sonless house—for the sake of the family’s well being. Even though later she is happy to find out whom she was to marry, but she is too close to death for recovery.

The journey to the afterworld for Peony—the most interesting and informative of Chinese culture and creeds—is not complete as her tablet has not been properly branded on the family altar. A hungry ghost that hovers over the earth aimlessly, she realizes that play has brought out too much passion, despair, and hope in her. Her thoughts of Ren never leave her; and since it’s against nature for even the dead to be left without a spouse, Peony begins to long for a ghost wedding that will restore her place of prominence. She enters his dreams and inhabits his new wife to remind him of her.

As befit to the title, the book about Peony in love. But as she leaves her sheltered life, everything is taken away from her. In the realm of ghost she has learned the secrets of family histories and tragedies that have enmeshed her and women whom her husband marry after her death. The novel is an heart-thumping drama of love, of self-identity, and of struggle of women to defy traditional values, constraints and superstitions. Secrets and their power to exercise on others set the tight rhythm with which events unfold. See’s thorough research into the historical events revolving Ming cataclysm and Chinese culture and beliefs in afterworld renders the book an authentic Chinese experience.

8 Responses

  1. I haven’t read any of Lisa See’s work yet, but I do have Snow Flower and the Secret Fan on my stacks. I’ve been interested in Peony in Love since I first heard about it, and you’ve just intrigued me all the more. 🙂

  2. That sounds so good. I’m putting it on my goodreads list. (Have you considered joining goodreads? You could post all of your well thought out book reviews on there. Just a thought.)

  3. Oh, I can’t wait to read this! I really liked Snow Flower and I think I am going to try her mysteries as well. It seems like the perfect book to read while you’re traveling there!

  4. I got my autographed copy in my stacks ready to read. If it’s as interesting as you say, it’s going on my nomination list for my book group.

  5. I’ve chosen this one as one of my book club selections – now I’m looking forward to reading it even more!

  6. I am happy to add my recommendation of Peony in Love, too. See’s accurate research really brings the reader into 17th century China.

  7. Great review! I’m about halfway through the book and totally love it.

  8. […] Matt at A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook […]

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