Category: Fiction/Historical fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Random House
Published Date: 26/06/2007
I'm sure we've all had literary crushes at some point in our lives or wished we could emulate literary heroes or heroines whose lives we thought were oh so romantic. My crush for the longest time was Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights(If you've had literary crushes, please do share, I'd hate to think I was the only one! :). I thought Heathcliff's dark, brooding demeanor was soulful and I have often wished I could have been his Catherine, likewise, 15-year old Peony Chen, Lisa See's young protagonist in the brand new novel, "Peony in Love" longs to emulate Li-niang the heroine of Peony's favorite Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion".
More on Li-niang and the opera "The Peony Pavilion":
The Peony Pavilion, which was first performed 1598 and is still performed today, told the story of a 16-year-old woman, Li-niang, who wrestled control of her own destiny ( women were so sheltered, they were not allowed step outside the walls of their homes and every decision was made for them by the men of the household) by starving herself and finding love after death. The Peony Pavilion, motivated a lot of lovesick young women in those days to starve themselves to death in order to control their destiny, so much so, the opera was was censored and was officially banned in 1868. Even recently, the Lincoln Center production was temporarily delayed when the Chinese government realized that previously censored parts of the opera were being included in the production.
But coming back to our young protagonist Peony...
On Peony's 16th birthday, her father organizes a viewing of her favorite opera on their property, (much to the dismay of Peony's mother who didn't think the Opera was a good influence on young girls.) During the performance, which takes three evenings to complete, Peony meets and falls in love with a mysterious young man also invited to the performance, however, the thought of never being able to marry him (she was already betrothed to someone of her parents' choosing) causes her to pine so much that she starves herself, all the while making critical notes on the opera in her book. Soon she finds herself close to the death, so in a strange bizarre way, her life seems to be imitating that of Li-niang, her favorite heroine.
"Peony in Love" is based on a true story of three lovesick maidens(of which Peony is one)...all loved to write, all three were completely obsessed with the opera "The Peony Pavilion" and all were married to the same man (one right after the other). Their notes on the opera were published into a book ( Three Wives' Collaborative Commentary on The Peony Pavillion), the first book by women anywhere in the world.
What I liked about the book:
Set in 17th century Manchu China, Lisa See adeptly lays out sumptuously detailed descriptions of the social customs of the people from that time, including a horrific, but compelling two-page description on foot binding, however, for me, the highlight of the book was the intricate death rituals and the Chinese take on the afterlife. Having been brought up with a Hindu/Roman Catholic view of the afterlife, this made such fascinating reading for me and it was sobering to think how if even one ritual is not done correctly, the soul may be prevented from arriving at its destination leaving it to wander the earth as a hungry ghost, which is what happened to our lovely but otherworldly, narrator, Peony.
One little, and I mean little, quibble I have with the book is that it moves very slowly, also, I have to confess the teenage angst displayed by our heroines got a little too much for me at times, but you can blame that on the fact that I already see a lot of teenage angst at home!
"Snowflower" or "Peony"?
Finally, the question you have all been dying to ask...how does it compare with her previous novel "Snowflower and The Secret Fan"? I much preferred "Snowflower" as you can tell my glowing review here however, I see Peony doing well and it will probably be the summer darling of book clubs all over North America.
For another review of "Peony in Love" , please visit Wendy's (Caribou's Mom) blog.
Also visit Biblio File (Jennie) for a beautifully written review here
The Peony pictures below have been inspired by Nat, Nancy and Les who take such gorgeous pictures on their blogs, their pictures encournage me to wield my camera a little more.