Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2007

A haunting love story steeped in the richness and rituals of 17th century China.

Peony is the cherished only child of of a wealthy Chinese nobleman. Yet she is betrothed to a man she has never met, and as her 16th birthday approaches, she has neither seen or spoken to any man other than her father, and has never ventured outside the cloistered women's quarters of the family villa. Her father has encouraged her education and even allowed her to read the opera 'The Peony Pavilion' despite the fact it's theme was considered unsuitable for young girls.

The Peony Pavilion was written by Tang Xianzu in 1598 and has always been controversial and censored for it's political and lascivious content. It was the first piece of Chinese fiction in which the heroine, a young girl, was to choose her own destiny. In the opera the heroine dies of a broken heart by starving herself to death, and then haunting her lover until he figures out how to bring her back to life.

For her birthday celebrations, Peony's father arranges for a theatrical performance of part of the opera in the family garden and the women are allowed to listen from behind screens. Peony catches sight of a young man and is immediately smitten . She slips away to a private place in the garden and there comes face to face with her perfect man.................her story will now reflect that of the opera.

On it's own the storyline, and what little plot there is, does have weaknesses........it's predictable and probably less a romance and more a melodramatic soap opera  but there is so much more to this novel that makes it worth reading. I like Lisa See's writing style.........her descriptive prose evokes a wonderful atmosphere of time and place and she has the ability to touch the reader at the emotional level.

I liked the historical background. It offers a glimpse into the lives of the women, the poetry and opera and the women writers of the time . But what interested me the most was the details of Chinese beliefs and rituals surrounding death , burial and the afterlife.
"Mama placed a sliver of jade in my mouth to safeguard my body. Second Aunt tucked coins in my pockets so I might soothe the rabid dogs I'd meet on my way to the afterworld. Third Aunt covered my face with a thin piece of white silk. Fourth Aunt tied coloured string round my waist to prevent me from carrying away any of our family's children...."

Fascinating stuff!

A lovely story - I enjoyed it!

 Historical Tapestry ABC Challenge

P is for Peony.


  1. Lisa See is one of my most favorite authors *ever*. If you haven't read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you should definitely pick that one up -- that one had me literally bawling. I had a chance to meet Lisa See at the local indie bookshop and she was fascinating!

  2. This is an author that I've always wanted to read but have never tried. This book does sound fascinating and like something that I would enjoy. Great review!

  3. I really enjoy Lisa See's historical novels, and I always wait with great expectation for the next novel to come out! Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. This one does sound lovely, and I have sure been meaning to read Lisa See since I have wonderful things about her books

  5. It sounds like there is enough historical and cultural detail here to compensate for the melodramatic plot. :)


  6. CBC - I read Snow Flower earlier this year and loved that too.

    Marg - I do too - the Chinese history is fascinating.

    Blodeuedd/Samantha - highly recommend. I'm sure you'd enjoy them.

    Stephanie - I suppose one should expect melodrama in a book based on a Chinese opera.

  7. I really like Lisa See's writing style too. I just recently read Snow Flower. I have Shanghai Girls at home to read, and at some point, I will read Peony in Love too.