Saturday, March 07, 2009

Book 25: Peony in Love

Peony in Love by Lisa See

This novel was definitely a litte bit different than I expected. The novel parallels the events of the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion and was inspired by the Three Wives Collaborative Commentary, a commentary written on the opera by three wives. Peony in Love is narrated from the perspective of Peony, the first of the three wives, who is actually dead for two thirds of the novel. While I've read ghost stories before, I wasn't actually familiar with many of the rules that are special to Chinese culture.

I still don't know quite how ghosts in China work but apparently they can be very powerful yet subtle. Peony made many comments about convincing and making people do things although I'm not really sure how or with what powers. Since it took me a while to adjust to Peony's powers as a ghost, I enjoyed the first part and the last part of the novel best.

On her sixteenth birthday, Peony meets and falls in love with a young man in her parents' gardens. Given her society, it is highly improper for her to be speaking to a strange man, and she never learns his name. Already betrothed, and scheduled to be married in five months, Peony dreads the day of her marriage now that she has met this young poet, and pours herself into writing a commentary on The Peony Pavilion, her favorite play and a love story. In her obsession with her project, she neglects to eat, and starves herself to death, discovering too late that her husband to be was the same man she met in the gardens.

Eventually her betrothed marries someone else, and Peony, who as a hungry ghost is trapped on Earth, takes up residence in Wu Ren's household, inspiring/creating the same obsession with the play that she possesses in his new wife. The novel covers a span of thirty years, and also discusses the Manchu invasion. Like in her novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan, See uses her fiction to explore women's roles in Chinese society which were actually changing somewhat in the period she selected for her novel. After a period of greater freedom, women are once again becoming more restricted in their movements. Some scenes were a little out there due to the cultural differences, but See once again creates a very well-drawn main character who even dead continues to learn about herself and her family. I really enjoy See's writing style and the themes she explores in the two novels I've read by her.

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