Normally I love Lisa See’s novels. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls both captivated me within the first paragraph or two – even by just reading the back cover copy – on two separate vacations and it was all I could do to stop reading them and spend time experiencing the places and people I had come to visit. Remembering those experiences this week, I searched out another novel by Lisa See and started reading Peony in Love as soon as I got home.
I liked the opening description. I liked the first few chapters. But at the end of the part one I put it down in disappointment. This is a good story. It has compelling characters. It has some lovely description. It just is so predictable. The protagonist is obsessed with an opera and then her life begins to parallel the opera, though she doesn’t recognize it. By the end of part one, the readers know exactly what is going to happen. I felt let down. I like a story to surprise me, and although Peony’s life didn’t follow the opera in every detail, it did in general. It isn’t fun to know the whole story before reading it.
Another issue I had with Peony in Love is that there are so many spots where instead of showing what is happening, the readers are just told that it is happening. These spots could have benefited from more dialogue or at least a description of the facial expressions and actions of the characters to reveal them. There are also some parts that have a lot of potential for action and excitement, but they are brushed aside with a quick ‘and then this happened’ explanation that left me wanting more. Those are the types of details that make the reader feel like a participant in the story – like we are present and watching it unfold. (Of course, she did include wonderful parts where this was present. Those made the novel worth reading.) I think that this novel is one or two more drafts away from excellent. These two issues caused me to consider not finishing the novel.
I did finish it, of course. I was intrigued by the fact that these characters were based on actual people who had lived during this tumultuous time in Chinese history. Peony in Love is set in China a generation after the Manchus had overthrown the Chinese government and the people were still adjusting to what this meant for their lives. As the men were preoccupied with figuring out where their place was in the new government and society structure, women were given more freedom and some began to venture outside of their homes. Cloistered life within the family compound walls was no longer always a given. Educated women wrote about their new experiences and to publish their work. They read other literature and published their reactions. Within the next generation – Peony’s generation – some families began to return to the traditional expectation that women’s place was within the inner wall while others continued with their greater freedom. Women’s emotions and desire to choose her own fate was celebrated in the famous (and now partially banned) opera, Peony Pavilion. This opera captured the hearts and minds of many girls and women across China and many imitated the heroine in hopes of getting to choose their own fate and find true love. This was one of the reasons it began to be banned.
This novel gives a fascinating insight into the traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterworld. This topic was the most interesting part of the novel for me and made me wonder how all the ancestors could be remembered and honored properly as the generations went on. How many thousands of ancestor tablets were kept in a given household? What happened to the ones that were so old that no one remembered them? Was there a limit on how long a soul was supposed to spend in the afterworld before it was reincarnated? Were all souls believed to be reincarnated eventually?
Peony in Love is a decently good novel. I would recommend Lisa See’s others in its place, but it is a great story. The issues that I had with it are the same I have had with many other contemporary women’s lit. It seems to have been very popular; many have liked the novel and the history surrounding it is fascinating.
A good description of the opera’s story and its production:
A fun review of the opera: