Peony in Love by Lisa See

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Title: Peony in Love
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Random House, 2007
Source: Library
Read for: R.I.P. Challenge

Peony is a young girl in a traditional Chinese household. She doesn't leave the house. Her feet are bound and delicate. She is betrothed to a man she has never met. However, on her sixteenth birthday, she is allowed to view (behind a screen, of course) a showing of The Peony Pavilion, an opera she loves, and one that has been accused of causing young girls' deaths from "lovesickness." In the course of the performance, Peony meets a young poet and begins a journey that will affect not only their lives but their afterlives as well.

I wasn't expecting Peony in Love to be a ghost story. However, amid the beautiful descriptions of gardens, the anguish of love, and the rigidity of Chinese culture, ghosts played a strong and occasionally spooky part of the story. In fact, this book had many elements that I was not expecting. I started reading it because one of my grandmothers kept asking me if I had read anything by Lisa See. When I saw this as a potential library book for Kindle, I jumped at the chance. However, I found myself with mixed feelings throughout the story.

At the beginning, everything was very pleasant. The descriptions were lovely. I found myself quickly absorbed by the descriptions of the culture, a culture that I know very little about despite the fact that I have a family member who was born in China. The meetings between Peony and her poet were romantic in that love-at-first-sight way.

Then things started getting disjointed as Peony drove her life into the ground. I became frustrated with her character, with her obvious happiness and pride at being diagnosed with "lovesickness," and later with her vengeful, controlling nature. I kept asking myself, what is the point of this story? Why are we dwelling on misery and revenge and manipulation for pages on end? I am not afraid of sad or dark books, but I like there to be something that redeems all the carnage of negative emotion and I wasn't seeing anything for chapters on end.

Then, Peony finally started experiencing some personal growth and doing some good in the world, and I started to feel more comfortable with the story again. By the end, I was satisfied and left the story with a feeling of enjoyment. The third part of the story had much more insight into the topography and scope of human love and the way it is possible to forgive, grow, and change.

Despite my disjointed experience with the book, overall it was a unique and enjoyable reading experience. Learning about Chinese culture and history fascinated me, and I am looking forward to reading more books set in Asia. I also found Peony's personal growth and experiences after death to be interesting and very different from books I have usually read. Even in fantasy books, I haven't often encountered any life-after-death scenarios, and exploring this culture's beliefs and Peony's experience was engaging and eye-opening. I especially loved that Peony experienced a great deal of personal development even though she was no longer living. In the beginning of the book, she has certain perceptions about love and about her family, as well as the play The Peony Pavilion, which is in many ways a catalyst for Peony's emotional growth throughout the novel. As the years pass with Peony observing the living, she learns new things about romantic love and about her family's devastating history, which in turn leads her to have new insights about the play. By the end of the book, she is a complete and generous woman, despite her foolish decisions in life (and several in death, too).

I'm not sure how I feel about Lisa See's writing style yet. The book was told from Peony's perspective, and something about the writing seemed a little sterile and held back to me. I'm not sure if this is a cultural element that is a result of Peony's voice -- she certainly has a repressed mortal life, not being allowed to leave her family's home and being trained in every way to be the perfect, subservient wife. It wasn't enough to dissuade me from finishing the book and I plan on reading more of See's work, but it was an element that bothered me a little.

However, overall, this was a new and interesting type of novel for me, and I am glad I read it.

3 stars

Warnings: Sensuality


  1. I was surprised by the ghost story, too.

    I loved Snow Flower and Peony, but her book that came out before her latest (I can't even remember the name!) was a disappointment. Especially when I got to the end and realized there was goiong to be a sequel. Grr.

  2. I read this one and although I enjoyed it, it wasn't quite close to the pleasure I had with the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Have you read that one? That is much more engaging and really is a beautiful work; I'd highly recommend that one by Lisa See instead!

  3. @softdrink - Dang, just bought the one that just came out. Fortunately it was only a couple of dollars. If that one doesn't work for me, good to know that I should look up Snow Flower.

    @Natalie - I haven't read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan yet. I've been hearing that is her best, so I will have to get to it soon!

  4. I haven't read any Lisa See yet, but one of my good blogging friends totally LOVES her. So, I bought Shanghai Girls :) I've also had some of her stuff on my tbr for a while so I'm hoping to read it soon(ish).

  5. I have Shanghai Girls on my Kindle! I need to get to it soon. I've also heard Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is great.


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