Monday, February 6, 2012
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 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 novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.
I read this a few days ago, and I'm still wondering what to say about it. I'm about equal parts like and dislike on this book.
This is definitely not a traditional romance novel, and yet the story is based entirely on love. But if you read it for that, you completely miss the point.
There is a pretty unsettling description of the practice of foot-binding in the book, but it is accompanied by a powerful description of (one opinion) why the women did it. Peony's mother insists it is a sign of power--the Manchus can invade their country but they cannot stop them from binding their feet. In comparison to this, consider that from this time in Chinese history come the first published women writers in the history of the world. I have to tell you, that kind of hit home for me.
Characterizations, plot, setting, historical details, historical significance--all skillfully depicted. Not a light, fluffy read, but I definitely recommend it to those interested in a read that will make an impact on them.