Book Review: Peony in Love

It’s a wrap for another Lisa See’s novel ; titled Peony in Love! When I was reading this novel, there were occasional times when I was taken aback by the different excerpts in the story.

The story started with a 16 year old Chinese girl, named Peony, who was looking forward to a play production staged by her father, The Peony Pavilion, which happens to be her all-time favorite opera.

Photo courtesy of: goodreads

Back then in China, this was a piece of controversial Literature as it has very differing views on women, sex and marriage, from the expectations they had of women during that time. In the novel, one of the personae has also said that this opera had been the cause of death for lovesick maidens – women starving themselves from love sickness.

She introduced her character by describing her physical appearance ; facial features resembling characteristics of a peony flower. She came from a privileged family that “even [her] maid had bound feet” and she was highly-educated ; in which her mother would say she’s “too educated for her own good”.

Her mother was very protective of her and held on to being traditional in her values. She was very much against Peony attending the play, stating that “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” Peony’s father gave her assurance that Peony and the other women will only be watching the play behind a screen.

That night when the production was staged, Peony glimpsed through the unintentional cracks on the screen and caught the sight of an elegant, handsome man, whom she likes to describe him as “man-beautiful” throughout the story. During the performance, there were several moments when she got overwhelmed by the emotional scenes of the play and she’d leave the venue to one of the pavilions owned by her family, to recollect her thoughts and emotions.

Then there, that night, she met that same man she saw through the cracks of the screen, Ren. He shared his view on the opera and invited Peony to share hers as well. She was reticent at first because she felt that it was already improper for her to allow herself to be seen by an outsider, a man especially, and she shouldn’t be expressing her thoughts openly. Peony also learnt that Ren was a poet. Later, he asked to meet her in the same pavilion the following night. Peony was very hesitant – but you see, a girl at her age ; one who is infatuated with thoughts of love and wallowed in an obsession of The Peony Pavilion opera, couldn’t simply just dismiss the invitation.

In the following meetings, they exchanged their opinions on the opera and love. They met 3 nights in a row ; the last night in another pavilion further away from the performance venue – the Moon-Viewing Pavilion. During this period, they fell in love with one another. Eventually, both of them revealed that they were already betrothed to their other half, whom the identity were unknown to them, in arranged marriages by their parents. During the first or second night ; halfway through the performance, Peony’s father introduced Peony’s soon-to-be husband on stage with him. Peony was disinterested and didn’t want to see how he looked like because she was not looking forward to the marriage. Little did she realize that it was Ren was the one she was to be married to… but it was all too late when the truth was only uncovered just minutes before her death.

Peony returned back on the final night with soiled bound feet and tunic in drapes (if I remember that correctly). Her mother locked her up in her room afterwards. While she was being locked up, she suffered from love sickness – she reads, writes and starves herself. Lisa See linked this starvation out of romantic longing closely with one of the problems modern society encounters, Anorexia. She had the different editions of the opera laid out by her bedside. When her mother took the books away from her and burned almost all of them, she’d struggle to retrieve them even when she was reduced to just skin and bones and barely had energy to do so . She would write short love poems on the slips of paper and hid them in the one book she has saved away from her mother.

Majority of the story progresses after Peony’s death – which surprised me when I read about the part of her “floating away”. The part crept me out alittle. With all the traditional Chinese rituals that follow after her death, I came to accept the truth that the protagonist of this story was dead.

The novel mentioned of the “3 parts of the soul” and the decease’s tablet must be “dotted” before he/she can move on to the after world. It was part of the ritual to be performed by the family, but the tablet was hidden away by the Amah who was caring for Peony during the period when she was locked up, and it was soon forgotten by her parents. So she became a “hungry ghost”, roaming on the realms of earth for 29 years before Ren found her tablet and got it “dotted” before she could proceed further on her journey.

She came to realize many truths, only when she has reached the after world. That she was, in fact, in an arranged marriage with Ren, the truth about her grandmother’s death (which she has tried to question her father many times but he is never willing to say anything more about it because it happened during a war), that the women in her natal family weren’t the close-minded women she thought they were and her father didn’t turn out to be the man of his principles, whom she used to assume him to be, etc.

I felt an array of emotions while reading this novel. When I was reading the first few chapters, I thought that this novel might be one of the ancient tales which is going to harp about two people hopelessly falling in love with one another. Exaggerated romance. She was highly-educated and I felt it was not commonsensical of her to starve herself to death just because she wanted to escape from an arranged marriage. She felt that love is indispensable to her. This is unlike what I assume most highly-educated women will do.

But we don’t always make decisions based on logic and what our head tells us. When we are given more time to stall over a decision which has not yet become a verdict, it allows for one to become even more vulnerable to get influenced by his/her emotions. In the story, she didn’t suffer from all that love sickness before she met Ren, even though by then, she is clearly aware that she was in an arranged marriage and was so close to accepting it. To think about it, Peony died because she met him and fell head over heels for him, not because she was taken aback by the news of an arranged marriage.

When you’re finishing a novel, any novel, gradually you will feel that you understand the protagonist more than anyone else in her life do because all along, you’ve been the only one who has been watching all the things happened to her. For her to die at the age of 16, it made me feel sad because I thought she would be capable of doing more if she was alive, than what she could have done as a ghost. Ren’s third wife found Peony’s works, along with the second wife’s and her own writings, and got them published. It was titled, “Three Wives’ Commentary on The Peony Pavilion“. Of course, Peony played a part in getting her to do so because it all started with her idea. She did it harmlessly and out of the third wife’s will to do so. During that era, it was uncommon to hear of women writers and their works in existence. But she, they did it.

As a ghost, she learnt more than the lessons in life she had while she was still alive. The novel tells me more than just a romance tale of a naive teenage girl selflessly sacrificing for love without considering the circumstances. Peony said that she has always hoped to go on an excursion after she was married, unfortunately, it only happened after her death ; where she went to many places. Peony visited the village, where the farmers who worked for her father resided there, she came to know of a family which she has felt sincerity and so much genuineness with them, that she has never experienced with her own family. Also, she rode on the pleasure boat with a group of female writers / poets, heard stories and learnt about their perspectives. I understand she would have the same opportunity to go on excursions if she was alive, but maybe to different places she would not be able to learn those – definitely not beyond the luxury and riches she’s basking in. In the story, you’d have gone through about 10 – 20 years with Peony as she grows up. You’d have see her maturing into womanhood. From an ignorant and arrogant young girl, to a more accepting and forgiving woman who can truly say that she has experienced life, in spirit form.

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