Review

Peony in Love

by Lisa See

PEONY IN LOVE is the latest novel by bestselling author
Lisa See. Her previous book, SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, is
still riding the bestseller lists and continues to be a book club
favorite. I approached PEONY IN LOVE with trepidation, as
I often do when faced with a new work by an author whose last book
is still on my current favorites list. It turns out there was
nothing to worry about. This is a worthy follow-up to, and in many
ways surpasses, SNOW FLOWER.

For a number of readers, this haunting novel --- set in
17th-century Qing dynasty-China --- will evoke THE LOVELY BONES,
THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN
HEAVEN. For myself, it pulled all the very best parts of these
three novels and interwove them with a story of lovesickness and
longing to produce a beautiful book about love that reads like an
edge-of-your-seat thriller you never want to put down or see
end.

Peony is an upper class 16-year-old who lives a life of ease but is
surrounded by “940 fingers” in the Chen family villa,
almost all of whom, it seems, are there to put Peony in her place.
Her feet have been bound, of course, and her mother and Aunties are
constantly reminding her about her behavior and the importance of
winning the poetry and art contests held continuously in the
women’s quarters (yet women could not be too educated). The
expression of one’s emotions was encouraged, but only if they
were tightly constrained ergo “acceptable” expressions.
(This was a time in China when there actually was a large number of
female writers being published, but their writings were
“lost” and forgotten, which See did much research
on.)

Peony’s marriage to “Golden Boy” already has been
arranged and inspires jealousy in the numerous cousins who surround
her and also play her mother’s game of tough love. Even the
servants, of whom there are many, seem to be spies of her mother
who constantly prod and rebuke the girl. Only her father seems to
treat her with a kid glove, a soft-hearted touch that seems to go
against contemporary habit.

Peony’s greatest love, the one that takes her out of her
everyday life, is for the popular opera The Peony Pavilion,
an actual opera written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu. The original
version, which had 55 scenes, was quickly targeted for censorship
due to its lasciviousness and, most likely, the fact that the
female protagonist chooses her own destiny, which is unheard of in
China at that time (and even today in some parts). Peony has
collected many versions of the opera and is allowed to hear a
presentation of it on her birthday.

During a brief absence from the ladies pavilion, Peony encounters a
handsome man and has a short banter with him. Afterwards, knowing
that she is betrothed to her “Golden Boy,” the son of
her father’s friend, she begins to pine away for the unknown
suitor from the opera and eventually dies of
“lovesickness,” a not-uncommon death for many young
girls of this era. This raises an intriguing question: Is this
death by depression? It isn’t outright suicide, yet they
basically starve and emote themselves to death. This concept makes
the book such a page-turning, thought-provoking story.

The years that ensue show Peony stuck in a limbo phase, unable to
travel forward through the afterlife due to her parents’
neglect of her ancestral tablet. She watches life go on without her
in her family’s villa and in the villa of her betrothed where
she would have lived out her days. She encounters other spirits,
including her grandmother and, eventually, her mother. She gains
knowledge that perhaps would have saved her this death by
lovesickness and enabled her to live a life happier than she ever
could have imagined. There are scenes so touching and beautiful it
is almost as if Peony’s spirit herself was writing through
See’s hands.

PEONY IN LOVE is a haunting treatise about love’s
possibilities and the devastating consequences meted out by fear of
the unknown. It is also an eye-opening account of women in China
after the fall of the Ming dynasty and under Manchu rule. As in
SNOW FLOWER, See again retreats to some very vivid foot binding
scenes, but I don’t think they are ever gratuitous. It was
horrifying and happened for centuries, but it had nothing to do
with who individual girls were and everything to do with who they
could be, especially from a man’s perspective.

The end of the book fairly soars and had me on the verge of tears.
Had I not been in public upon reading the last page, I would have
fallen. That hasn’t happened since THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE,
which I thought was the most beautiful love story I had read in 20
years. It just fell into the number two position, however,
because PEONY IN LOVE has taken over the top spot. This
is a book to be read and reread, savored and relived, pored over
and relished. Definitely a summer must read!

Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 17, 2011

Peony in Love
by Lisa See

  • Publication Date: June 26, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 140006466X
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064663