Living in seventeenth-century China, Peony has never left her family’s home. Her mother has kept her inside to maintain her virtue and modesty as she prepares to marry out to a stranger. Peony is nearly sixteen, and on her birthday, her father has planned a performance of her favorite play, The Peony Pavilion. As the only child, Peony has been educated beyond what her mother deems appropriate, and as a result has a great appreciation for literature. On the night of the play, Peony accidentally meets a handsome young poet, immediately falling in love with him. In despair over her approaching marriage to a stranger and consumed by obsession for the play and her poet, Peony’s life spirals into a haunting struggle through the nebulous underworld and culminates with her quest to give Chinese women a voice.
I’ve been looking forward to this novel since it came out and was pleased to finally have the opportunity to read it. Lisa See didn’t let me down; while not as masterful as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read before blogging, Peony in Love* is a romantic story about the struggles of women in China with an abundance of fascinating historical detail and a healthy dose of fantasy. Peony dies in the first third of the novel (this is revealed on the back cover, so I don’t consider it a spoiler) and enters a world of Chinese mythology, where Lisa See uses her research on those beliefs to elaborate on how Peony can still communicate and influence those she loves. We know her ending cannot be totally happy, but her story is still compelling and absorbing.
My favorite aspect of the book was how it mirrored The Peony Pavilion in many ways but also reflected real historical events. I have never read the play, but enough is described in this novel to make it clear that Peony is essentially trying to become Liniang and get her Mengmei to bring her back to life. It was fascinating and maddening to realize that many young women did actually die of “lovesickness” in this way. Basically, it’s believed that they became anorexic, which is horrifying, to both gain control over their lives and because they supposedly believed that true love would save them. Even though this sounds a little far-fetched, it’s easy to relate to Peony and sympathize with her. She’s fallen in love and believes that now she is forced to marry a stranger. I loved the details of her preparations for marriage (except the repeat footbinding!) and the ceremonies enacted before and after her death. This is a part of the world and a period in history I just don’t read enough about.
Better yet, I liked how the novel emphasized the role of women in China and how it has been eroded throughout the centuries. The Three Wives’ Commentary on the play actually exists, as did the writing groups and female poets in the novel, and I’m incredibly intrigued by them and want to learn more about the movement. This is why I love historical fiction! Not only did I get a great story, but I also got a peek into unfamiliar history and a strong desire to learn what’s true and what’s fiction. Peony in Love is definitely recommended.
*I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased all books mentioned in this post.