Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peony in Love - Lisa See

Peony In Love
Lisa See
Random House
Copyright: 2007

The product description:
“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.
After reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan for the second time earlier this year and absolutely loving it yet again, I finally gave Peony in Love a second try. I'm really glad I did. Compared to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, this is quite a different work, almost hinging more on the fantasy side of things, and yet it fits.

I'll be honest and say I don't know very much at all about the history of the time period in question, seventeenth century China, nor about the culture. It doesn't matter though. Enough is explained through the context of the story.

This book really is about the characters - Peony, her family and her husband to be. There's also quite a bit about Chinese history and literature in here too, if I'm understanding the author's note at the end of the book correctly. One of the focuses of the story is the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion, and it shapes Peony In Love throughout, as this is supposed to be a story about someone who wrote about the opera.

Lisa See is excellent at creating and writing her characters - I found myself getting really attached to Lily while reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the same thing happened with Peony in this book. I'm trying not to say too much that would spoil the story - there are some things about it that surprised me - probably through sheer unfamiliarity with the culture - that I don't want to give away.

Peony In Love is a great book, even if you don't know much about the setting. Perhaps not quite as good as Snow Flower, but definitely a good read and a book I'll probably end up re-reading at some point in the future.


France said...

This tragic love story takes us through a mystical journey to hell, with demons, ghosts and sword fighting. The main character Peony narrates her life in a rather lackluster manner and appears a little naïve when devastated by cruel twists of fate. When she reappears as a ghost the story become monotonous, a constant tale of stalking and obsessiveness and the slow pacing became overwhelming and I found myself quickly losing interest and eventually wondered how I made it to the last page.

Elena said...

Despite that, I thought it was still a good story, France. One that took a couple of tries to get through.

Thanks for commenting, France.


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