Peony in Love
by Lisa See
In seventeenth-century China, in an elaborate villa on the shores of Hangzhou's West Lake, Peony lives a sheltered life. One night, during a theatrical performance in her family's garden, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man and is immediately overcome with emotion. So begins Peony's unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow, the living world and the afterworld. Eventually expelled from all she's known, Peony is thrust into a realm where hungry ghosts wander the earth, written words have the power to hurt and kill, and dreams are as vivid as waking life. Lisa See's novel, based on actual historical events, evokes vividly another time and place - where three generations of women become enmeshed in a dramatic story, uncover past secrets and tragedies, and learn that love can transcend death. Peony in Love will make you ache in heart and mind for young Peony and all the women of the world who want to be heard.
(Above summary is on the back of the book and not my words.)
This was a hard read that started out incredibly promising. The summary stated that this book is based off of historical events, and the book shows those historical bits wonderfully. See sets up the setting in a beautiful manner, letting the reader glimpse a view of the world of 17th-century China through the eyes of almost-16 year old Peony. Through Peony's experiences the reader sees the life of women during the Qing dynasty, from their isolation within their homes to the practice of foot binding that was prevalent until the 20th century.
That's about as much of the book as I can speak positively or professionally about. The rest of the book reads like a horrible teen diary, which I suppose is kind of the point, but it grates my being in an unpleasant way.
I'm not a fan of situations that arise from lack of communication. I hate movies that have an entire premise on characters' inabilities to have a simple conversation or give an explanation. I'm not exaggerating when I say this. Whether it's a TV show, movie, or book, I have this inexplicable rage that consumes my being when I see this situation. It's a lazy storytelling mechanism and I can't stand it.
Peony's father brings a group to their home to perform an opera based off a play Peony is in love with - The Peony Pavilion. The play's storyline is based around a woman meeting a man in a dream and falling madly in love with him. Upon waking from her dream, the woman is unable to recover from her fixation and allows herself to waste away and die. Before she dies, she paints a self portrait and writes out several poems and stories about her dream lover. Through magical after-death ghost haunting and other romantic magical malarkey the woman finds out that her dream man (get it?) is actually a real person and they end up reunited with the woman magically resurrected.
It's important to emphasis that during this time, women were not allowed out of their homes until they were married off. It wasn't appropriate for unwed women to be seen by any male besides family and servants. As a result, this play was performed with the women of the household sectioned off from the visiting male guests.
Over the several-night course of this play, Peony ends up meeting a man that she becomes enamored with. It creates a difficult situation for Peony, for she has already been betrothed to another man that she has not met and knows only by name. For whatever reason it means that she cannot talk with the man she is enamored with about ultra-personal things... like their names. Insert eyeroll here. Please tell me you realize where this is going.
As the woman does in the play, Peony begins to allow herself to waste away due to her despair at being married off to a man she does not know. In a conversation with her father shortly before she dies (the exact moment she dies is rather fuzzy, but what does it matter?) it is revealed that the man she met during the play and the man she is betrothed to are one and the same. Peony is overjoyed - but it is too late. She still withers away and dies.
The rest of the book follows her ghostly haunting of her would-be husband, ruining his first (or would it be second?) marriage before somehow maturing and deciding to somehow mold a third woman into someone her would-be husband would love.
I did not finish this book. It enraged me beyond belief and I could not stand the whiny, "romantic" way Peony went about her life and subsequent afterlife. I had long discussions with M about my frustration and tried to wrap my head around how this could be a good story. Why did it receive such glowing reviews when it was so ridiculous?
I fully understand that teens are fickle with their emotions, and becoming lovesick so easily isn't a hard thing to imagine. Especially in the setting given for this story, where young girls are kept away from males and exist in a completely different social ecosystem from the outside world. The Peony Pavilion is a real opera and resulted in many real world deaths when young women fell in love with the idea of the story and let themselves waste away. A story about one of the women that befell this tragedy isn't that hard to understand.
Where I cannot believe our Peony would fall in this trap is in the author's insistence at painting her as an intellectual person. Peony's father has kept Peony well educated throughout her life, and it shows in most of her thoughts and expressions. How then, could such an intellectual person decide that she should not ever ask the name of this mystery man she finds herself in love with? Why, when her father offers to point out this man she is betrothed to, does she say no? If you are a hopeless romantic, would it not cross your mind to hope and dream for these two men to actually be one?
Because of my rage at this completely avoidable misunderstanding, it was hard for me to get through the rest of the book. It dragged on unnecessarily, and I would have preferred that it end at Peony's death. Perhaps someone else will enjoy this book and its attempts at a roundabout coming of age story. For me, it was a waste of a story that relied on a lame trope.