Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Peony in Love - Lisa See

peony in love
lisa see
c. 2007
273 pages
completed 11/6/2010

read for: what's in a name challenge, year of the historical challenge

*may contain spoilers*

Two days before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up so early that my maid was still asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed.

In seventeenth century China, after the invasion of the Manchus, Peony is about to turn sixteen. During her birthday celebration, when she is privileged with the extremely rare experience of witnessing a performance of the famous opera The Peony Pavilion, Peony accidentally meets a man and instantly falls in love. Knowing she is already betrothed and very soon to be married, Peony tries to cherish her few stolen moments with her stranger, taking to writing a detailed commentary on the text of The Peony Pavilion. So obsessed with her project and her doomed love for her stranger, Peony's life begins to mirror the life of Liniang, the heroine of The Peony Pavilion, and she soon succumbs to "lovesickness" and dies before her wedding. Now a ghost trying to navigate the afterworld, Peony must watch and nudge her betrothed's next two wives to complete her project and help her find peace as an ancestor. Peony in Love is based on the actual events that led to the writing and publishing of The Three Wives' Commentary on the Peony Pavilion, one of the first books of its kind written by women.

I am not entirely sure what happened, but somehow in the past months I've gone into a major anti-reading funk. October was ridiculous in my lack of motivation to read anything. It took me a month and a half to start and discard only two books. So yea for this one for holding my attention the whole way through.

I enjoyed Peony in Love much more than I enjoyed See's earlier novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I felt Snow Flower's story kind of sputtered a lot, like there was a lot of start and stop. With Peony, however, I felt there to be a much more consistent flow, and I was equally intrigued by the story and the wealth of information regarding seventeenth century Chinese history, custom, and beliefs of the afterworld. I remember being annoyed by aspects of Snow Flower's story, but really enjoying the cultural information. In Peony I found both facets to be extremely compelling. Particularly, I was really interested in the ideas of the ghosts and spirits of the afterworld. Some of the beliefs seem so bizarre and arbitrary to me (as I'm sure my own beliefs would seem to someone who had been raised with this knowledge of Chinese ghosts). I especially liked the notion that Chinese ghosts can't make sharp turns. As such, zigzag bridges were apparently built all over China to keep ghosts from being able to enter and haunt the villages.

To be completely honest, the fact that Peony's stranger and Peony's betrothed husband turned out to be the same person annoyed me. Actually, no, that's not true. I probably could have gotten behind that. What annoyed me was how quickly I realized they were the same person, but how it took Peony until she was basically dead to come to the same realization. So really, I was annoyed with Peony because if she'd just opened her eyes a little bit she could have been happy. But I guess that's the point. She is kind of blind and childish in the beginning, but through her journey she becomes enlightened.

Two things I wanted to mention...

First, I found it extremely fascinating the way anorexia in this story was seen as "lovesickness." Whether or not Peony actually fell in love with Wu Ren in that initial meeting, which I'm not one hundred percent sure she could have in so short a time, it did awaken a realization of her complete lack of control in her own life and destiny. This was probably the same with the other lovesick maidens. Like the doctor in the story claimed, their access to The Peony Pavilion was in some ways dangerous as it portrayed a woman who was able to choose her own destiny, something these women who were reading it (and in extremely rare cases, seeing and hearing it) were in no way able to do, and it gave them a desperate and ultimately fatal yearning for a life they couldn't have. Just like many modern people who suffer from anorexia, Peony's mania for her project and her refusal to eat were ways to exert some sort of control on her life. Please keep in mind as a disclaimer, though I can objectively see how The Peony Pavilion could have played a role in the deaths of these lovesick maidens during this time in Chinese history, I in no way agree with the doctor and other men in this story who used this phenomenon as an example of why women should be kept illiterate and uneducated. Let's advocate education for everyone.

Second, I am extremely impressed with Lisa See's ability to include detailed information about certain Chinese customs in such a neutral and unbiased way. While the process and the dangers of foot binding, for example, are in no way sugar coated (especially in Snow Flower where the entire procedure is described in excruciating detail), they are also not simply dismissed and demonized to perhaps appease a Western audience. Instead, perfectly bound feet are portrayed as a mother's greatest display of love for her daughter. While I, as a contemporary American, can read about that process and feel it to be unnecessarily dangerous and torturous, Lisa See leaves that opinion entirely up to me to come to on my own and leaves Peony and her family's opinions of foot binding as historically accurate as possible. I found that extremely well done.

I always like it when something I read makes me interested in reading something else. I've now acquired a copy of The Peony Pavilion and am excited to read it, though I don't think there's any easy way for me to get my hands on a copy of The Three Wives' Commentary. Sometimes, though, I'm more excited to learn about specific historical texts than I am to actually read them. We'll see how this goes.



(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked this one too, but not as much as Snowflower and the Secret Fan. Thanks for the great review --it was a refresher for me:)

Veronica said...

I've had this book on my shelf for a long time, since I read Snowflower, but I've just now gotten around to it. Have you read her newest novel, Shanghai Girls? I've heard good things about it.