Saturday, September 22, 2007

Peony in Love by Lisa See

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production:
“Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

I am going to have to be honest, when I started this book I was not sure if I was going to like it. I even put it down for a few days, but I picked it back up today and did not put it back down again (willingly) until I finished it. In many ways it is hard to compare this book to Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. They take place in different time periods, but at the core they are stories of women facing adverse circumstances in society. A common theme in both books is writing, and expressing themselves in words. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the girls express themselves through the writings on a fan. Peony in Love is predominately about a piece of writing and how it inspires women to write.

The aspect of the book that I was not sure about at first is that the main character of the novel dies and then continues to narrate the story as a ghost. I was not sure if that was not going to get a bit corny, but Lisa See carried it off very well. She has written a very lyrical novel that easily expresses the connection that the Chinese had with the afterworld. This novel is very much about love, like the title tells us, but that is not all that is happening here. In China at this time, many women were never taught to write. People did not like the fact that Peony could write because it was not a 'womanly' thing to do. Some men were revolutionary, though, and believed that their wives should able to be educated.

The authors note at the end of the book explains how this is historical fiction and how Lisa See came up with the idea. The story is based on a real opera, The Peony Pavilion which was written by Tang Xianzu and set during the Song dynasty, but apparently that was not the period he was talking about. To learn more about the history of the opera and how it became important to See, you will have to read the book and author's note.

I think I liked this book because it touched on issues that are even still present in society. It is a novel about women rising up against the men in society and doing something for themselves. I think I could almost call it inspiring. And, I liked the afterworld idea after a while. I think it was interesting that the ancestors of those still living became characters in the book. You could even overlook the way that Peony died by the end because Lisa See made it look right. I think this book will touch the romantic in people. I am very happy that I read it. Many others like her other book better, but I think this just became my favourite.

1 comment:

  1. I will be reading this in the next few weeks! I am looking forward to it!