Peony In Love – Lisa See

Set in 17th-century China, See’s fifth novel is a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a family saga and a work of musical and social history. As Peony, the 15-year-old daughter of the wealthy Chen family, approaches an arranged marriage, she commits an unthinkable breach of etiquette when she accidentally comes upon a man who has entered the family garden. Unusually for a girl of her time, Peony has been educated and revels in studying The Peony Pavilion, a real opera published in 1598, as the repercussions of the meeting unfold. The novel’s plot mirrors that of the opera, and eternal themes abound: an intelligent girl chafing against the restrictions of expected behavior; fiction’s educative powers; the rocky path of love between lovers and in families. It figures into the plot that generations of young Chinese women, known as the lovesick maidens, became obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, and, in a Werther-like passion, many starved themselves to death. See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, etc.) offers meticulous depiction of women’s roles in Qing and Ming dynasty China (including horrifying foot-binding scenes) and vivid descriptions of daily Qing life, festivals and rituals. Peony’s vibrant voice, perfectly pitched between the novel’s historical and passionate depths, carries her story beautifully—in life and afterlife.) I must say that I loved the first Lisa See novel that I read (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and had high hopes for this one, and was severely disappointed. It just rambled on and on (SPOILER) even after the main character dies. Uggh. After the beautiful writing of “Snow Flower”, it was hard to read this– it was simply missing too much – in terms of explanations, background details, character development, and tying together really choppy scenes, that it felt amateurish, trite and unmoving.

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