Romantic trysts, anorexic teenagers, mothers with secrets and women with literary ambition—Lisa See’s Peony in Love takes place in mid-17th-century China but has surprising elements of modern life. But this is a historical novel, and See’s work also takes readers deep into the culture of the wealthy families of that time, immersing the plot in Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and exploring the changes in society that occurred when the Manchus invaded from the north, obliterating the Ming dynasty. It was a turbulent period in the country, and a time when some women began to leave the gates of their family homes to travel and write poetry.
This is the story of Peony, a 16-year-old on the threshold of her arranged marriage. Like many young women her age, she is obsessed with an opera titled The Peony Pavilion, about a man and a woman whose boundless love cannot be killed by anything as mundane as death.
Peony’s father, a wealthy man, hosts a performance of the opera at his house, and the women and girls are allowed to watch the event from behind a screen. Overcome by her emotions as she watches, Peony takes a break in the family’s garden. There, she meets a handsome stranger and as they discuss the opera, she falls instantly in love with him. This chance meeting breaks society’s rules about how women should act, which causes Peony great stress in the aftermath.
But what cause even more anxiety are her impending nuptials. How can she marry the man her father has selected when her heart belongs to the mysterious stranger? As her own story begins mimicking the tale of the opera she adores, Peony becomes a lovesick maiden, gradually starving herself to death. But will death keep her from true love?
This is an ambitious novel based on a true story. As Part II begins and Peony enters the afterlife, See’s rich understanding of historical detail and Chinese culture come into full bloom. We learn that the afterlife has societal rules, too. Ancestor tablets must be dotted as part of the funereal rituals or the dead will become hungry ghosts wandering the Earth. As Peony observes the world from her own ghostly existence, we learn about ghost marriages and talismans that ward off evil spirits, but also about earthly matters like foot binding and concubines. Peony, who began a written commentary on The Peony Pavilion while she was alive, manipulates her would-be husband’s wives into finishing that literary endeavor. Along the way, she meets groups of women writers and uncovers some long-held family secrets.
This is a lot to cram into a relatively short book, and the love-story narrative suffers for it. The tension in the plot falls apart in Part II, sidetracked by information about the women’s literary movement and the fall of the Ming dynasty.
Worse, See lets characters become pedantic. Peony’s grandmother, whom she meets in the afterlife, for example, gives a too-long speech about the role of women at the fall of the Ming dynasty. Grandmother’s heavy-handed feminist arguments become repetitive and unnecessary. Then, at a point close to the book’s third and final part, Peony states: “During the following months, I found no answers, but I began to regain my strength, find my resolve and once again remember that I, like all women and girls, wanted_needed_to be heard.”
Clearly, by this point, even the dullest of readers has understood this is one of Peony’s primary motivations.
Bogged down in historical and cultural details, See allows herself to drift into other unnecessary details, like the sexual encounter between ghost Peony and one of her would-be husband’s wives. The story plods and then thuds to its predictable conclusion.
The book lacks the page-turner quality of See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which deftly used history as backdrop to a strong narrative. Ironically, though, the history that slows this book down as a novel ends up being perhaps the best reason to read it. At one point, in fact, I began wishing See had approached this as nonfiction. As a discovery of a place back in time, Peony in Love works.
As a love story, though? It’s no Peony Pavilion.