Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Lisa See - Peony in Love

Peony has neither seen nor spoken to any man other than her father, a wealthy Chinese nobleman. Nor has she ever ventured outside the cloistered women's quarters of the family villa. As her sixteenth birthday approaches she finds herself betrothed to a man she does not know, but Peony has dreams of her own.
Her father engages a theatrical troupe to perform scenes from The Peony Pavilion, a Chinese epic opera, in their garden amidst the scent of ginger, green tea and jasmine. 'Unmarried girls should not be seen in public,' says Peony's mother, but her father allows the women to watch from behind a screen. Here, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man and is immediately bewitched. So begins her unforgettable journey of love, desire, sorrow and redemption

Comment: This is the third book by Lisa See I read. I have liked the previous ones I've tried and I had hopes for this one as well.

In this historical fiction story, Peony is a young girl, about to turn 16 which means she will be married soon. Peony has lived all her life in seclusion, among the other women in the house but she feels privileged when her father says yes to the performance of a play she loves in their garden. The play is loved by many but it is also known to evoke feelings of love sickness in young girls, which Peony would not think she would emulate but that night she glimpses and talks to a young man for the first time, with the exception of her father. She knows this is forbidden but they seem to get along well and in the following days, she meets this man again. However, her mother notices she was missing and decides to lock her up, so her reputation can be saved. But Peony is in love and using the play as her source of inspiration, decides to use her confinement to write. However, something terrible is about to happen and Peony might be too late to avoid it...

It can be tricky to try to summarize this book. I've read the blurbs for the different editions and some sort of ruin part of the plot I think... I had not read that before and when the plot went a certain direction, it was still surprising, which I think is more interesting than already knowing what will happen, even if it's at an early stage of the book.

This is an historical, the setting is in that apparently catastrophic moment when the Ming Dynasty ends and the new emperor begins his reign (17th century). This is a moment of many changes for China, in some areas more than others, but culturally the base isn't that different and, for the purposes of this novel, the basics are these: women and men have their roles, the men make the decisions and it is desired that women learn to obey, they have their own hierarchy in the house and when a young girl marries, she becomes part of her new husband's family.

The author includes a lot of cultural elements, as expected, and the story feels richer and more intense because of that. It isn't possible for most characters to simply decide and act, there is a lot to be considered and the fact we get to understand some of these rules, these cultural norms, makes what happens even more dramatic, for what makes sense to our contemporary notions and beliefs, plus the western POV also, turns the events of this story into something something sometimes unbelievable or if it's so outdated that it can't be easy to think of it as real.

The plot itself isn't too complicated, basically Peony falls in love but life and society forbid her from acting on her new feelings in a way that would maintain her reputation and that of her family, intact. This might sound too weird but it isn't a novelty when it comes to stories about many Asian countries/cultures and I think all the details included were well chosen, to better convey these aspects. Perhaps, what might make this a more bizarre story is the inclusion of The Peony Pavilion play. This is a real Chinese literary work, which has seduced many readers/poets/literary experts through time and the author used it as the base for this fictional book.

However, the use of the play can give the book a sort of dreamlike feel, and the addition of how the Chinese see their afterlife with all the traditions and little continuous things one has to do when rituals are being done, can make the book feel a bit too confusing and too bizarre. I think the author did a good job trying to portray the importance of the play for this story and for Chinese culture but thinking of this as a purely entertaining level, I can understand why it wouldn't be easy for some readers to remain focused on what was happening.

As per the best (or should I say, better known) Chinese tales or stories, there's a lot of heartbreak and unfair situations and impossible odds to overcome. I've felt the heaviness of this story's drama and I felt sorry for Peony and some of the "lessons" she has to learn during her journey, but in a way that is what makes it worthwhile when she finally realizes that happiness and dreams don't have to exist for one's selfish reasons only, sometimes the beauty of life and tradition is on how we can help others and how our actions can make us feel good too, and at peace with ourselves.
Grade: 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment