Peony in Love (See)

Peony in Love
Lisa See, 2007
Random House, 2007
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812975222

Summary
I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave—and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow—as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place—even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—February 18, 1955
Where—Paris, France
Education—B.A., Loyola Marymount University
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California



Lisa See is an American writer and novelist. Her Chinese-American family (See has one Chinese great-grandparent) has had a great impact on her life and work. Her books include On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995) and the novels Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), Dragon Bones (2003), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), Shanghai Girls (2009), which made it to the 2010 New York Times bestseller list, and China Dolls (2014).

Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones make up the Red Princess mystery series. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love focus on the lives of Chinese women in the 19th and 17th centuries respectively. Shanghai Girls chronicles the lives of two sisters who come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages and face, among other things, the pressures put on Chinese-Americans during the anti-Communist mania of the 1950s. See published a sequel titled Dreams of Joy.

Writing under the pen name Monica Highland, See, her mother Carolyn See, and John Espey, published three novels: Lotus Land (1983), 110 Shanghai Road (1986), and Greetings from Southern California (1988).

Biography
Lisa See was born in Paris but has spent many years in Los Angeles, especially Los Angeles Chinatown. Her mother, Carolyn See, is also a writer and novelist. Her autobiography provides insight into her daughter's life. Lisa See graduated with a B.A. from Loyola Marymount University in 1979.

See was West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly (1983–1996); has written articles for Vogue, Self, and More; has written the libretto for the opera based on On Gold Mountain, and has helped develop the Family Discovery Gallery for the Autry Museum, which depicts 1930s Los Angeles from the perspective of her father as a seven-year-old boy. Her exhibition On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience was featured in the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and the Smithsonian. See is also a public speaker.

She has written for and led in many cultural events emphasizing the importance of Los Angeles and Chinatown. Among her awards and recognitions are the Organization of Chinese Americans Women's 2001 award as National Woman of the Year and the 2003 History Makers Award presented by the Chinese American Museum. See has served as a Los Angeles City Commissioner. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/21/2014.)



Book Reviews
Peony in Love, is—for the reader willing to venture a crucial suspension of disbelief—a complex period tapestry inscribed with the age-old tragedy of love and death and bordered round with vignettes from Chinese metaphysics, dynastic history and the intimate chamber tales of women s friendship and rivalry.... See is gifted with a lucid, graceful style and a solid command of her many motifs. These—like the fascination of "The Peony Pavilion" and the inscription of commentary, first by Peony in her feverish last days and later by the ill-fated Tan Ze and then Qian Yi, both Wu Ren's wives—are worked through with care; the historical panorama, meanwhile, encompasses everything from governmental politics to foot-binding procedures
Sven Birkerts - New York Times


A novel whose protagonist hangs, after death, from a room's rafters and climbs inside a rival's womb to untangle a child's umbilical cord, who dies of self-starvation and communes with the ghosts of her mother and grandmother, who pens a major commentary on a seemingly seditious text and ends up reconciled with both of her successor-wives—well, suffice it to say that the pleasures of Peony in Love are neither those of logic nor chronology. Years pass in a paragraph; realms are traversed in a line. This reader felt, from time to time, almost literally transported and commends the willing suspension of Western disbelief. There's much here to be savored and a great deal to be learned.
Washington Post


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..
Publishers Weekly


Teenaged Peony lives in late 16th-century China, protected by her wealthy family, her entire life arranged for marriage and the birth of sons. Prior to her marriage, she overhears passages from the famous opera The Peony Pavilion and has a brief but life-altering conversation with a very handsome man-both strictly forbidden to an unmarried maiden. The "love-sickness" brought on by these secrets leads to Peony's death by self-starvation, as she pines for the man whose name she does not know. After her death, owing to a lapse in protocol, Peony is condemned to wander the earth as a "hungry ghost." The descriptions of her ghostly existence over the decades are interwoven with her devotion to the poet she could have married, the women he later marries, other wanderers, and The Peony Pavilion itself. As the book reveals, during the Manchu Dynasty women were oppressed severely, even in death; the foot-binding process depicted here is truly horrible. The writing is compellingly exotic and vivid, and listeners are drawn into this world by the beautiful voice of Janet Song, who brings Peony's journey to life. Highly recommended for public libraries, especially those with collections for young adults. —Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX
Library Journal


Foot-binding, opera and anorexia are feminist statements in See's (Snowflower and the Secret Fan, 2005, etc.) ghost story set in 17th-century China. The monumental (55-scene) opera Peony Pavilion, written in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, tells the tale of Liniang, who defies convention by seeking to choose her own mate, then wastes away of lovesickness. Peony, coddled teenage daughter of the Chen clan, is not the only aristocratic maiden to be love-struck by the opera (still considered outre in China today). Although promised in an arranged marriage, Peony observes a "man-beautiful" poet from behind a screen at a performance of Pavilion, and she falls in love. Risking ruin, she meets him for chaste garden trysts to discuss poetry and qinq (emotion-ruled life). As her marriage approaches, Peony emulates Liniang's self-starvation, devoting her time to annotating the pages of various editions of Pavilion. Through a tragedy of errors, Peony learns, on her deathbed, that her betrothed Wu Ren is her poet. After death, someone hides Peony's ancestor tablet, condemning her to wander the earth as a "hungry ghost." She visits Ren in dreams and pens more Pavilion marginalia. On a limbo-like "Viewing Terrace" she meets her grandmother, killed during the "Cataclysm," the carnage marking the advent of the Manchu Dynasty. Horrified, Peony witnesses Ren's marriage to her spoiled rival, Tan Ze. She molds Ze into an ideal wife, daughter-in-law and fellow Pavilion annotator. But Ze dies while pregnant, and is consigned to the Blood-Gathering Lake, special hell of women who fail at childbirth. In a world where women are punished in life and afterlife, the Manchus threaten more oppression, toward female literati who organize writing groups and publish their poetry. Peony atones for Ze's fate by helping peasant girl Yi advance socially and buck the Manchu regime—by binding her feet. As Ren's third wife, Yi joins Ze and Peony in coauthoring the groundbreaking Three Wives Commentary, which examines Peony Pavilion. See's gossamer weave of cultural detail and Chinese afterlife mythology forms an improbably inspiring tapestry of love and letters.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. On page 76, Lisa See quotes the poet Han Yun, who wrote, “All things not at peace will cry out.” What do you think he meant by that? And in what ways does this inspire Peony and the other women writers in the novel?

2. What are the different kinds of love that Peony experiences? How does her love for Ren (as well as for her mother, father, grandmother, Yi, and even Willow) change through the years? Have you had similar experiences in your life?

3. Anticipating her first meeting with Ren in the Moon-Viewing Pavilion, Peony states: “Monthly bleeding doesn’t turn a girl into a woman, nor does betrothal or new skills. Love had turned me into a woman” (p. 49). Is Peony’s statement true?

4. Peony is filled with doubt after meeting Ren–doubt about their relationship, doubt about ever finding love, and doubt about being a good mother. What is the source of this doubt and how does it grow within Peony?

5. In the nights of watching The Peony Pavilion, Peony has many visions of the man she will marry, and many visions of “her poet.” Why isn’t she able to make the connection that both men are one and the same? What signs does she overlook and why?

6. On page 94, Peony thinks she’s being dressed for her wedding, but instead she’s taken to the courtyard to die. Peony is certainly surprised by this turn of events. Were you? How does this moment affect Peony’s future actions and her feelings about her family? How do you feel about this practice?

7. Many men have told Lisa See that they don’t like the idea of the Chinese afterworld, where your relatives are still your relatives and your position remains the same as it was in life. Many women, on the other hand, have told her that they find the idea of the Chinese afterworld comforting. They want to be united with their families in the afterworld and still be able to interfere in the living world. What are the differences and similarities between the Chinese afterworld and Western religions’ concept of heaven and hell? Which would you prefer—for yourself and for your loved ones—and why?

8. We see a difference in Peony’s actions after Ze marries Ren and again after Ze dies. Do you see redemption here for Peony?

9. In what ways is mother love, from both a mother’s perspective and a daughter’s perspective, explored? What does Peony learn about mother love, and in what ways does she experience it herself? What aspects of mother love still hold true for mothers and daughters today?

10. How does what happened during the Cataclysm change depending on who’s telling the story?

11. Peony in Love shows the strength of women and women’s friendship, but in what ways does it also show the dark shadow side of women, whether in the women’s chambers, between a mother and daughter, between wives, or even between friends?

12. Peony in Love is very much a tale of secrets and the power secrets can exercise over others. What are the secrets? Who is affected by the secrets and how do they change through the story?

13. You have read about three generations of women, and also about the people around them—both male and female. Of all the characters, which do you feel you are most like, and why? Are there any people like these characters in your life today?

14. Often what we hate most about ourselves–our weight, our tendency toward selfishness, our vanity, etc.—is what we are most critical of in others. Trace the progress of Peony’s relationship with Tan Ze—through life together in the Chen Family Villa and then in the afterlife. In what ways are Peony and Tan Ze alike, and in what ways are they different? Why do they need each other, and how do they serve one another? Do you have similar symbiotic relationships in your life, and in what ways would you expect those relationships to change in the afterlife?

15. How do Peony’s experiences as a living girl and then as a hungry ghost parallel Liniang’s experiences in The Peony Pavilion?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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