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Peony in Love (See) - Book Reviews

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




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