Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Peony in Love: a novel
Release date: June 26, 2007
Chen Tong, Peony, has fallen under the spell of a legend. On the Seven Seven, the seventh day of the seventh month, the lovers Weaving Maid--one of the Kitchen God's seven daughters--and the Cowherd, separated by the Milky Way, cross the bridge of magpie wings to rekindle their passion. It is a night for lovers, for the dream of true love's power to transcend even the intervention of a goddess. Two days before her birthday, her sixteenth Seven Seven, Peony attends the first of three nights' performances of The Peony Pavilion, a classic opera portraying the story of Liniang and Mengmei--a girl of a good family and the young scholar she falls in love with. Watching with the other women of the household from behind screens, Peony sees--and falls in love with--a young man, her own young scholar.
It is 1665, after the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu, when women remained hidden behind gates and walls, and marriages arranged by parents and astrology charts. Peony is already betrothed to someone she has never seen and knows nothing about. Between the spell of the opera and the spell of love the young man shares with her, Peony becomes one of the lovesick girls who have fallen under the spell of The Peony Pavilion, and its story of love that transcends death. Rather than as a bride, Peony leaves her family compound for the first time as a corpse, beginning her life as a lovesick ghost. The novel is her continuing pursuit of love.
Peony's journey through the world of the dead and its inhabitants is also the story of longing of a different kind: to be heard. Tong Chen, Peony, has been heard. Lisa See lets us hear Peony's story through her own words as she narrates her own story. We see the world of the Manchu, both the world of the living and the world of the dead, through the eyes of the sixteen year old as she navigates the bureaucracy of the afterlife and struggles to survive her continuing pursuit of love. See reveals the hidden world of women, and the lives they hide from each other. This is her gift as an historical writer writing of her own cultural history. The reader is taken deep into the traditions of a culture we are still curious about today. We see the binding of girls' feet, watch the sacrifice of women so that their husbands and sons survive, and the fear that haunts them even when they have negotiated a freedom as poets and authors.
Lisa See writes deeply from her own family's history in China and brings that intimacy to Peony's world. Her love for the history, her recognition of how men were also trapped by the traditions they had to uphold, her sensitivity to the effects of war and bureaucracy on households and all their responsibilities shows in every scene. See also knows how to use the details of domesticity and the scope of history to build tension and maintain suspense.
While Peony in Love is a true story, it is also a ghost story, a romance, and the history of women's dreams.