Peony in Love by Lisa See

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Peony in Love by Lisa See

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Peony approaches her 16th birthday, cherished by her family, betrothed according to custom and full of romantic dreams for a happy and prosperous future...all of that will change during her birthday celebrations. The love story that follows echoes that of the classic Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion and both are used to explore the nature of women's lives during 17th century China - and in particular the lives and influence of women writers of the time. Emotionally restrained. Delightful. Thought-provoking.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747582489

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Peony is approaching her 16th birthday with all the blissful self-belief of the cherished only child. Her father is a wealthy nobleman and her mother (importantly) a still-loved first wife. She has been indulged by her father and her servants. Her amah and her mother and aunts have done their best to instil in her the four virtues of womanhood so that she will make a good wife - but her stitching is imperfect and her fingers skitter on the zither and her paintings of butterflies and flowers will win no contests. She knows the traditions however and honours them.

She has had wealth and attention lavished upon her. She is elegant and beautiful.

She is full of hope and dreams... for she is also a romantic. Her birthday falls on the auspicious double seven - seventh day of the seventh month, the lovers' festival - and for her birthday celebrations her indulgent father has arranged a performance of her favourite opera The Peony Pavilion.

This in itself causes tension in the family. In accordance with tradition, although already betrothed, Peony has never seen a man other than her father, having been cloistered within the women's quarters. Her mother is incensed at the notion of bringing strangers into the family compound to perform - and worse yet, inviting family members and professional colleagues to attend and thus witness the shame of it. But all is not lost - the arrangements are that the ladies will listen to the opera from behind a screen - they will see what little they can through the cracks, but more importantly they will not be seen.

All will be well.

Only. The real problem is that as well as the love and affection and wealth that Peony has been showered with... her father also gave her an education. She reads and writes. A dangerous thing for a woman. She has studied The Peony Pavilion to the point of devouring it. She loves the tale with a passion, has various editions of the printed work and thinks long and hard upon its hidden meanings: about love, about sexuality and morality.

During the performance, through a crack in the screen, Peony catches sight of an elegant man-beautiful poet and is enchanted. Her young cousin is similarly bewitched. But it is Peony who risks all by sneaking away from the opera and, firstly by accident, but twice again by design, meets the poet Ren and sets in train the events that unfold in Lisa See's fictionalised exploration of The Peony Pavilion, the Three Wives Commentary upon it, and the life and times of women writers in 17th century China.

For the Peony of this tale it is a story of love and dedication, but also one of horror and shame, sorrow and redemption.

For the reader it is a strangely unfamiliar way of viewing ancient China and her traditions and beliefs. That women were subservient, had their feet cruelly bound, were manipulated at best, hidden and tortured as a matter of course, and sold by weight at a value less than salt at worst is heartbreakingly familiar territory; the extent to which they acquiesced in this, their reasons for doing so, and the means by and extent to which they overcame or rose above it have been less well explored.

This is what See does with Peony. The story is steeped in the rites and rituals and their import and effect. It resonates with the beauty of the country, while echoing with the brutality that lingered from fall of the Ming and takeover by the Manchu Qing dynasty... as well as that which was innate in the societal norms of the place and time.

Her focus is three-fold: the official Chinese response to The Peony Pavilion opera, the lives and experiences of the lovesick maidens, and the explosion of female writing that arose from the chaos of the dynastic switch (with the coda of its subsequent repression).

The opera is genuine: first produced in 1598, a performance of the full version by the Lincoln Centre in 2000 was the spark for the novel. It has been frequently denounced as lascivious, immoral and even 'dangerous'. The repeated censorship continued down the centuries... up to and including Chinese attempts to intervene in the Lincoln Centre production.

The Commentary too is a fact. Its having been written by the three wives is believed to be true, though there is equal evidence that this may have been a conceit adopted by a single (male) author. See's vision of bringing about the commentary, however, is pure fantasy albeit one based so fundamentally on actual religious beliefs that - who knows - it may well have been this way.

The lovesick maidens are equally drawn from genuine records of the time. Girls and women who, denied of any say in any of the external aspects of the lives turned inwards and with all the Byronic romanticism of 19th century Europe took to their rooms and starved. Clear resonances of modern emotions and resulting dysfunction. Anorexia being not so modern a disease as we may think.

The use of Peony as first-person narrator throughout is an effective device for exploring the "given-ness" of the restrictions upon women - she speaks of the binding as an act of love, and the lily-feet as the most beautiful creations. Through the Banana Garden Five we learn of the extent of the poetry and other writings of the time; the fact that there were indeed professional women authors making a living... and that men in general and the estate in particular soon saw their very existence as a threat, and used their own tools against them.

The sheer detail of belief and ritual that is seamlessly woven in to the storytelling is breath-taking.

Lifted rather than laden with quotes from The Peony Pavilion, the Commentary, and other writings of the time, the result is a pure delight. The writing is as elegant, poetic, succinct and beautiful as a Chinese watercolour. It is a romantic novel in the widest possible meaning of the word romantic... but for those that look it also has important messages about how we judge history and how we view ourselves.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Ian McEwan's Atonement.

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