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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 the New York Times bestselling author of Shanghai Girls; Peony in Love; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee); The Interior; and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. (From the publisher.)

More
At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots.

I knew three things. I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off — ‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer.

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored accolades while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera.

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover. (From the author's website.)

Extras
• I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco.

When asked about what book influenced her as a writer, here is her response:

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I read this novel just before I started writing On Gold Mountain. I loved the way Stegner combined family story with history. I know that this book has come under severe criticism in recent years for possible plagiarism. Nevertheless, it inspired and continues to inspire me.

(Bio and interview from a 2005 Barnes and Noble interview.)



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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