Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

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!

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A couple of weeks ago in a Sunday Salon post I listed some books I’d read but hadn’t reviewed, inviting readers to ask me questions about them (copying a Weekly Geeks idea).  This question came from Florinda (who is having an AWESOME 2nd chance CONTEST- Check it out HERE):

Florinda, on August 3rd, 2008 at 4:02 pm Said: 

Bird by Bird is one of my “permanent collection” books – LOVE it.

A couple of questions for you:

The subtitle of the book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” What “instructions” do you think will be most helpful to you, in writing, life, or both?

What are your thoughts about Anne’s expressions of her Christianity? 

Anne Lamott is the teacher I wish I’d had, or the friend I wish I knew.  In reading Bird by Bird, you feel like you’re sitting in her class, or maybe chatting over coffee.  She’s able to give advice without coming across as preachy or better than you- just wise, loving, and experienced.  She acknowledges your fears and encourages you to keep going.  She’s enormously talented and generous with her words.  She’s inspiring, giving you the courage and motivation to just do it and keep on doing it (whatever “it” is- not just writing), all while making you laugh.   Here is what she says about writer’s block: 

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you.  You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit. …  Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while.  The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.”  Pg. 177  

She goes on some more about writer’s block, the reasons for it and the feelings associated with it, before giving her advice:

 “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do.  We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings.  But if you accept the reality that you have been given-that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.  I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams of stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing- just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day.  Then on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”  Pg. 178

Her advice is to approach writing (or a project of any kind) in a step by step (bird by bird) way, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and trust in the process rather than focusing on the end result.  Her specific writing advice that I’m trying on is to write every day (300 words)- even on a bad day- even when you don’t feel like it, use simple language, write for the love of writing-not the end result, give your best stuff- don’t save it up for later, give everything you have, be interested-look around-pay attention and write about things that matter to you, give yourself the freedom to write anything that pops into your head- to try new things- to not self-edit while writing but to wait and remove things later as necessary.  In general, don’t take yourself too seriously.  It’s good advice.  

On Anne’s Christianity and her expression of it.. I don’t really feel I know enough about it to comment on it.  She seems to love and trust God through all of life’s unexpected turns, and for that I applaud her.  I haven’t read her other work in which she talks about her faith more extensively.  Her younger reckless years are documented at length in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (one of very few end-of-the-century works included on the Modern Library’s listof the 1900s best nonfiction) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, but I haven’t read those yet.  

But back to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I received this book as a gift, and it’s a gift that will be giving back to me for years.  I would highly recommend this book to beginning writers, of course, but Lamott’s little life lessons and anecdotes would appeal to anyone.  I loved this book and plan to re-read it soon, as it’s almost like a warm hug from someone who cares. 

Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of 9 unique short stories with a common thread… the characters are mostly people of Indian descent, either in America or India.

Lahiri tells these fish out of water experiences of immigrants and first generation Americans with compassion.  They are stories of everyday situations and frustrations; snapshots of daily life. Lahiri’s precise attention to detail is what makes them so amazing.

All 9 stories are excellent, but my favorite was the first story in the collection.  “A Temporary Matter” is about a young married couple whose marriage is suffering after the loss of a baby.  Their relationship has disintegrated into long stretches of silence until they get a notice that, for a week, their power will be cut off for an hour each evening.  For that week, they share meals and secrets by candlelight, until one heartbreaking secret is more than they can bear.

Lahiri is a gifted writer whose style is very subtle, sensitive and restrained.   Her stories are realistic and touching, and are told from different perspectives (1st person, 3rd person, narrator).  She writes of arranged marriages, marriages in trouble, loneliness within marriages, an affair between a girl and a married man, envy, fear, love; in other words, the human experience.  I would highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning collection.

Book clubs can find discussion questions HERE.

Review: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Head!

Our book club is reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory this month. The size concerned me a bit (661 pages) so I started it immediately after our last meeting to be sure I had plenty of time to read it. I needn’t have worried.. it is a very fast, easy read. I devoured it in less than a week. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about the book and the characters, and would try to finish whatever I was doing quickly so I could get back to it.

You might expect a book of this size to have lulls or slow parts. It doesn’t. The editing is tight, and the tension builds throughout. An absorbing page-turner; I could not wait to see what would come next.

There are those who don’t care for historical fiction because the outcome is a forgone conclusion.. the ending a certainty. For me, this was not an issue, as I knew very little about the 16th century English court or the reign of the spoiled tyrant, Henry VIII (aside from the playground song, “I am Henery the 8th I am!”). In this case, ignorance is bliss. I liked not knowing what would happen.

Framed by two executions, this novel reads like a 16th century soap opera, full of scandal, danger, murder, ambition, greed, opulence, sex, incest, and more. The Other Boleyn Girl is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, the lesser known sister of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Taking sibling rivalry to new heights, it tells the tale of two sisters vying for the attentions of the king, and a fiercely ambitious family who sacrificed their daughters in order to find favor, wealth and power.

Mary comes to court as a young girl. Married to William Carey at age 12, she soon catches the eye of the king. She is then ordered by her family to leave Carey’s bed to become the king’s mistress in the hope that their affair will yield land, riches, and power for the Howard/Boleyns. An obedient daughter, she sets aside her own life and desires and does as she is told. After several years and two illegitimate children, the king’s interest begins to wane. The more ambitious sister, Anne, is thrown into his path, and Mary falls from favor. The madness that is Anne’s exhaustive pursuit of the king takes over. Anne, using Mary and their brother George, will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She creates a situation with Queen Katherine that seals her own fate years later.

The historical detail is flawless and the research extensive. It was fascinating to learn about the way people lived, the inequality of English society (from deep poverty to amazing wealth), the expectations of women (proper language, proper manners, the ability to speak several languages, fine domestic arts), the small daily rituals and the use of household items like lice combs (yes, lice, even among the highest levels of society).

There are so many great passages in this book. When I read for my book club, I highlight quotes that I might want to refer back to during our meetings. I did a lot of highlighting in The Other Boleyn Girl! One of my favorite lines is a simile about the excesses of the court, found on page 54:

“There was a trail of extravagance and dishonesty and waste that followed the king round the country like slime behind a snail.”

Such vivid imagery! I was impressed by Ms. Gregory’s writing, the way she handled the complexities of the characters and the seamless blending of fact and fiction. This is an enthralling novel, one I would highly recommend.

You can check out Philippa Gregory’s website HERE

For information about the upcoming movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry VIII, click HERE

You can see our book club’s other selections HERE