Peony in Love

by Lisa See

I really loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (and I’m looking forward to the movie
http://www.screendaily.com/news/distribution/fox-searchlight-strikes-us-deal-for-wangs-snow-flower/5013717.article though I was surprised to hear that Hugh Jackman will appear in the movie… huh? I love Wolverine but… Apparently they have included a modern timeline to the story… maybe two women trying to find out the link between their grandmothers?) so I started reading this with high expectations.

Peony in Love begins with a young girl who loves books and is totally enchanted by the opera Peony Pavilion, about a cloistered girl who met her lover in dream and after dying of lovesickness, her body was found by the man in her dream and she returned to life. Peony’s father stages a performance of her favorite opera in their house for her birthday, and Peony chances upon a young man with whom she promptly falls in love. Knowing that marriage matters are arranged by parents and each has a betrothal, Peony is sick with longing for love.

In all honesty, I did not like the story in the beginning. It is way too obvious where the plot is heading. Star-crossed lovers is one thing, but tragic romance bore out of stupidity doesn’t quite get my sympathy. After the story reaches the predictable point, there is a while where little happens, as Peony mills around doing nothing much. Fornutately I persevere and the second half of the story becomes interesting. So, my word of advice is, skip or skim through the first part if you like, but it’s worth the effort to continue on!

After reading the novel and the author’s notes, I have to say that I like it even more than Snow Flower, and also that this is a more accomplished work. Wu Wushan’s Three Wives’ Commentary 吳吳山三婦合評〈牡丹亭還魂記〉is an actual book that was published in 1694, and still in print after over 400 years (you can buy a copy at http://book.douban.com/subject/3177126/). So are Xiaoqing’s poems. Lisa See has closely woven the known historical facts into her fiction, and create a superb story. With Snow Flower there is more creative liberty, but with Peony, she is more limited by the facts, and thus I am more impressed with her success. Originally I had thought that Peony will reincarnate to finish her work, but I have to say See’s way of linking the three wives works better in a novel, and gives Peony more opportunity to grow as a character.

I really like how the author chances upon a little known cultural work/fact, things that even the average Chinese may not know about, makes it an obsession, and spins out a lovely tale, like nu shu in Snow Flower, and the Three Wives’ Commentary in Peony. She has reached across time, to give voices to the women lost in history. A strong, powerful amd memorable voice.

I have to give another warning for readers: keep an open mind. Lisa See has created in detail an afterworld according to Chinese beliefs. A place with its own rules and likely very foreign to most readers. Just suspend your belief. Afterall, come to think of it, doesn’t the vampire world has equally bizzare taboos and beliefs? That said, I do find the idea of single entry visa from the afterworld, and other concepts quite interesting. And the idea of a ghost who goes around binding little girl’s feet — the most horrifying ghost of all!

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Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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