Saturday, May 09, 2015

Peony in Love by Lisa See

Back in 2008, I read Lisa See’s interesting novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  The story, set in China, thoroughly examined the role and treatment of women in 19th century China.  I had a vague notion of “foot binding” but no detailed information.  After Googling images, I was horrified.  When a book club member suggested See’s 2007 novel, Peony in Love, I winced just a little.  This time the author sets her story in 17th century China.  Embedded amongst all the feet, the I discovered a love story like no other I have ever read.  I forgot the feet and switched to the heart.

The Organization of Chinese American Women named Lisa See the 2001 National Woman of the Year.  She has written several novels, all of which revolve around lost or covered up stories and the relationships among women.

Peony is a young girl of about 15 – only weeks away from her marriage to the son of a moderately well-off family.  Peony has never seen her intended, but at an intermission in an opera, The Peony Pavilion, she steps out and meets a handsome young man and immediately falls in love.  As her wedding approaches, she fears a wizened old man would be her husband.  She pines for her mysterious young man to the point of starvation and exhaustion. 

The array of unusual customs and habits of the period staggers the imagination.  After a meal, Peony hears a drum and cymbals calling the women to the garden.  Peony is first out the door.  See writes, “I needed to proceed cautiously, fully aware that men who were not family members stood within our walls tonight.  If one of them should chance to see me, I would be blamed and a bad mark set against my character” (9).  Hard for us to grasp such a mindset in today’s society. 

In addition to other men, Peony has a deep and abiding commitment to respect and honor her father.  See writes, Peony ‘had lived fifteen years without having committed a single act that anyone in my family could call unfilial” (11).  Peony becomes a writer, commenting on the opera she has seen.  He father gives her a present.  “He went to a camphor-wood chest, opened it and pulled out something wrapped in purple silk woven in a pattern of willow.  When he handed it to me, I knew it was a book. […] I loved books.  I loved the weight of them in my hands.  I loved the smell of ink and the feel of the rice paper.  ‘Don’t fold over the edges of the page to mark your place,’ my father reminded me.  ‘Don’t scratch at the written characters with your fingernails.  Don’t wet your finger with your tongue before turning the pages.  An never use a book as a pillow” (25).  A wise man indeed.

I did see one anachronism, which I always enjoy finding in novels.  Peony mentions “Piles of fruit […] in cloisonné dishes” (52).  While the Chinese did produce dishes with pieces of metal that pooled glaze of a certain color, the term, cloisonné first appeared in French in 1863.  Peony could not have known that word, which means “compartment.”

As a note in the front of the novel explains, the opera, The Peony Pavilion, was first produced and published in 1598.  See based Peony on Chen Tong born about 1649.  The Three Wives Commentary on the opera, became the first book of its kind written and published by women anywhere in the world.  The factual basis for this story makes it all the more horrific and wonderful.  Lisa See’s Peony in Love, is a wonderful historical novel, which opens windows on a secretive and hidden period in Chinese history.  See has several other novels, and I think I hear them calling from my PC.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/1/15

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