Peony in Love by Lisa See (2007, 284 pages)
Peony in Love is the third historical novel by Lisa See that I have read in the last six weeks. The first was Shanghai Girls, a very well done and cliff hanging story of the immigration of two sisters from Shanghai in the 1930s to their adjustment to life in California through the mid 1960s. I learned a lot about the Chinese immigration to the USA experience from this book and it was exciting if grim in its movement from one disaster to the next. A couple of weeks after I finished Shanghai Girls I lucked on her Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in hardback for sale at nearly ninety percent off the list price. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in mid 19th century China and is the story of the lives and relationships of two life long friends. Just as in Shanghai Girls, we see the importance of foot binding in Chinese culture ad we see just how terrible a thing it was to do to adolescent females. The descriptions of the process are hard to read.
Peony in Love is set in 17th Century China. Peony, who we meet at age sixteen shortly before her arranged wedding is to take place, loves reading and books with a special passion for opera. An opera is going to be preformed by a traveling troupe of players. Unmarried women of the gentry are not supposed to go to such performances but Peony begs her father to be allowed to go and her indulgent father sets it up so she can see the opera and be hidden behind a screen. Peony is soon to be married to a man she has never met. Her mother and her aunt have been educating her on the proper role of a wife in a noble family. Peony is very worried about her future. She knows there is little love in her parents marriage and she knows the shame her mother hides when she deals with the concubines her father has taken. There is a really brilliant scene in the book where Peony's maid, also 16, is helping Peony dress. Peony thinks she and the maid (who was sold to the family a few years back as more or less a slave) are friends. She is shocked to learn the maid hopes Peony's father will take her as a concubine and is even more shocked to see that under the mask of servility the maid deeply resents the privileged status of Peony and may even hate her. At the opera Peony sees a beautifully attired and very handsome man and it is love at first sight for her. Peony has three days of contact with the man and falls deeply in love. As I have come to expect in the novels of Lisa See, there will be many turns of the plot. Just as her wedding day approaches Peony learns some very wonderful almost unbelievably good news. Then something horrible happens. Peony enters the afterlife prior to her wedding (this is not a spoiler it is on the book jacket) wedding. We are given a very detailed and fascinating look at the Chinese concept of the underworld. We see the various torments the deceased must go through depending on how they have lived. Peony is able to watch her families lives go on without her. (For better or worse this part of the book reminded me in its point of view of Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold though the afterlife in Lovely Bones is just set out in a bare bones way.) Peony watches her family go on without her. She wanders as a ghost for a long time. She bonds after a period of hatred with the woman her beloved does eventually marry. There are a lot of very good details in Peony in Love and we learn a lot about how marriages among the nobility worked out. We learn of politics in the period and we she her shock when her father goes to work for the Manchu dynasty even though he had sworn life long loyalty to the emperor the Manchus overthrow. We experience the carnage of warfare on the civilian population in 17th century China. We get a detailed look at daily life and come to understand class structure. We see what people eat. Any lover of books will cringe in horror when they see what her mother does to Peony's beloved books at the advise of a doctor. We also learn a lot about women writers in 17th century China.
I think I may have "overdosed" a bit on Lisa See in reading three of her three historical novels back to back. The novels can be described as grim. Of course the times were hard and women were valued only as they could bear sons and serve men. I do endorse the reading of all three of her historical novels for anyone who enjoys novels set in Asia (as I do). I think you should read first novel set in the period that interests you most, Shanghai Girls from 1935 to 1965, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan set in mid-19th century and Peony in Love in the 17th century. If I did not dislike the ending of Shanghai Girls I would say it is my favorite one. Peony in Love is being made into a movie.