Lisa See is a master at exploring ancient Chinese life, particularly the lives of women. Set in 17th century China, Peony in Love is the story of how a privileged young girl from a wealthy family becomes a lovesick maiden, a hungry ghost, and eventually, an honored ancestor.
The story opens with 16 year old Peony and her household preparing for a performance of the opera “The Peony Pavilion” which her father has staged and directed at great expense. Visitors have arrived and there is much excitement. The opera is performed over the course of several days, and the young unmarried women are permitted to view it only from behind a screen, because it would be improper for a man outside of their immediate families to see them.
Peony, an only child, is educated and well loved, unlike many ‘useless’ girls of her time. She is lovely with her tiny bound feet and delicate lily gait. She has studied the opera, considered a danger by some, and has many opinions and feelings about it. Through the screen she can see some of the guests and a section of the stage. She glimpses a handsome young man in the audience and, during a particularly poignant scene, is overcome with emotion and needs to move about. Quite by accident, she encounters this young man (a sensitive poet who was also moved by the scene) in a courtyard of her home. Ashamed at being seen yet drawn to him, they have a few moments together boldly speaking about the opera.
Peony finds a way to meet this young man twice more. Her mother discovers she has been out, and fearing the appearance of impropriety, banishes the betrothed Peony to her room. Though she never learns the poet’s name, Peony becomes obsessed with the idea of him. Her father has already arranged a marriage for her but she is lovesick for her poet, consumed by thoughts of him and wishing to marry him. Ever the dutiful daughter, she continues to prepare for her marriage but also begins a project based on The Peony Pavilion, obsessively recording her thoughts on love in the margins. She starts refusing food and ignores the advice of her doctors. Her mother, alarmed and desperate to make Peony well again, burns every edition of The Peony Pavilion that she can find in a vain attempt to shock Peony back into health. By the time Peony realizes she has made a horrible mistake about her sensitive poet, she is on her deathbed and it is too late.
But that is just the beginning of this love story. Peony learns about yearning and romantic love as a young girl; she later discovers physical love as a hungry ghost, and ‘deep heart’ love as a sister-wife in the afterworld. She finds a way to make her voice heard and to live on even after death.
I was anxious to read this book after having read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, perhaps my favorite book of all time (definitely in my top 3). It is beautifully written, historically accurate, well researched and artfully constructed. It’s a very visual book; I could vividly see the scenes in my mind’s eye. There are so many wonderful cultural details and rich descriptions of traditions, superstitions and ideas about the afterlife, the treatment of ancestors, foot binding (not nearly as intense as Snow Flower, thank goodness), women’s issues, marriage, writing, and everyday life that make this a truly absorbing novel. I loved it and would recommend Peony in Love to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or just a really good (tragic romantic asian ghost) story.
My book club will have the great privilege of talking to Lisa See by speaker phone next Sunday at our meeting. I’ll be sure to take notes and share the details here!