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Peony in Love

by Lisa See

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Peony in Love
Writing an historical novel is easy. Pick a time, setting, and characters. Be sure that characters are realistic and they act according to their milieu, never inconsistent in dress, action, or speech. Avoid anachronisms. (That clock should not have chimed in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar!) Somehow, on this bed of raw facts, one must create a story imbued with life and authenticity, with characters who live in our imagination, characters we care about.

Lisa See has done this in spades, blending historical facts with the spiritual life of 17th Century China. Her "Author's Note" places the novel into historical perspective. Tang Xianzu wrote an opera, The Peony Pavilion, in 1598. Some 9 hours long, it is still produced today, although often over the protests of the Chinese government. The opera, which provides the frame for this story, gave rise to the "lovesick maidens," young women who fell in love, quit eating, and literally wasted away. The three maidens of the novel (and in real life) were Chen Tong (Peony of the title), born about 1649; Tan Ze, born 1656; and Qian Yi, born 1671. In 1694, The Three Wives' Commentary was published, the first book of literary criticism written and published by women. It was a time of political and social upheaval. The Manchus overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1644 and chaos reigned for some 40 years. Thousands of women were "liberated" (a relative term), enabling them to become published writers. There were more female writers in China at this time than in the rest of the world combined. Forty-four of these writers remain known today.
In the preface to The Peony Pavilion Tang Xianzu wrote

"Love is of source unknown, yet it grows ever deeper. The living may die of it,
by its power the dead live again … Only for those whose love must be fulfilled
on the pillow, … and for whom affection deepens only after retirement from
office, is it an entirely corporeal matter."

See mixes the corporeal and spiritual worlds in a riveting story of love unrequited in the real world. The soon-to-be child bride Peony sees a handsome young poet at a performance of the opera, falls in love, and manages to meet him. Wishing to marry him but betrothed to another (she believes), she quits eating. On her deathbed, she learns that her betrothed was her young poet. Ironically, her father had introduced him to the guests at the opera, but she had chosen to look away at that moment. Her story, and its subsequent results, mirrors The Peony Pavilion.

See has an unerring eye for detail. Peony walks on her bound feet: "I swayed with a flawless lily gait, moving gently across the floor, careful with my steps, my body shivering from side to side like a flower in the breeze." Or, speaking of her cloistered life, Peony says, "I didn't understand that my cousin and I were trapped like good-luck crickets in bamboo-and-lacquer cages." Later, "I tried as hard as possible to make my face as unfathomable as a pond on a humid summer night." Her description of foot binding is frightening!
In The Dragon Bones, See brought modern China to life in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River as vividly as she presented late 19th Century China in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. In Peony, her portrait of 17th Century China is fascinating. Aside from a beautiful love story, told in a most compelling manner, it is also an anthropological treatment of the Chinese belief in ghosts, and an encyclopedia of the cultural underpinnings of Chinese life. Through the voice of Peony, now a ghost who cannot be worshipped, we learn how "real" ghosts were to the Chinese, how they affected the lives of the living. Ghosts ("creatures of yin-cold, dark, earth, and feminine") are to be avoided at all costs while ancestors are to be worshipped and cared for even in their afterlife. Ancestors are social superiors while ghosts are social inferiors.
Ultimately, See brings the stories of Peony, her mother, her would-be lover/husband, and his two subsequent wives together into what is a happy ending in both the corporeal and spiritual worlds. After twenty-five years as a ghost, Peony finally finds peace: "Gone were my girlish ideas about romantic love and my later ideas about sexual love. From Yi, I learned to appreciate deep-heart love." In the "Author's Note," See comments further, "All women on earth-and men, too, for that matter-hope for the kind of love that transforms us, raises us up out of the everyday, and gives us the courage to survive our little deaths: the heartache of unfulfilled dreams, of career and personal disappointments, of broken love affairs." Peony transcends Death, "living" as an honored ancestor and as the voice of a beautiful piece of literature written 350 years after her death.

Lisa See's books have explored the hidden and forgotten elements of Chinese life. A murder mystery series, set in modern China, explores the exploits of Liu Hulan in The Interior and Dragon Bones. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, set in 19th Century China, revealed the practice of women's secret writing, which had prevailed for a thousand years. Peony continues a tradition of strong female protagonists. Her first book, a biography of her grandfather, known as the godfather of San Francisco's Chinatown, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1995. She has also written an opera based on that first work.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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