by Lisa See
I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to
passion; in autumn only regret.
For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, the lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amidst the scents of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing choice scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few girls, even women, have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony too is cloistered and from a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.
Peony's mother is against the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony's father prevails, assuring his wife that proprieties will be maintained. Women will watch the opera from behind a screen to hide them from view. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave -- and is immediately overcome with too many emotions.
So begins Peony's unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow -- as Lisa See's haunting new novel takes readers back to 17th century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed. Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place -- even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence . . . a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors are worshiped, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth.
Based on a true story, Peony in Love uses the richness and magic of the Chinese afterlife to transcend death and explore the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, it’s about universal themes: the bonds of female friendship, the power of words, the desire all women have to be heard, and finally those emotions that are so strong that they transcend time, place, and perhaps even death.
“Engrossing…[a] thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human.”
People (Critic’s Choice)
“There are grand and stately themes here—the transcendence of love, the silenced voices of women, the subversive power of art… Peony in Love is a transporting read, to lost worlds earthly and otherwise.”
The Chicago Tribune
“A quietly beautiful tale that sneaks into the reader’s heart… Not since Susie Salmon of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones has a ghostly narrator been as believable and empathetic.”
San Antonio Express-News
“See is gifted with a lucid, graceful style and a solid command of her many motifs.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Shakespearean in its themes and emotional depths.”
St. Paul Pioneer Press
“A beautiful book about love that reads like an edge-of-your seat thriller you never want to put down or see end….The end of the book fairly soars and had me on the verge of tears. Had I not been in public upon reading the last page, I would have fallen….This is a book to be read and reread, savored and relived, pored over and relished.”
The Book Reporter
“See is a master storyteller, calling on her knowledge of history, myth, and current international events to craft intricate narratives that are at once edifying and evocative. In Peony in Love, she leads us on a literary adventure into the past that will have relevance to today’s readers who value drama, accuracy, and the lure of the written word.”
The Boston Globe
“Electrifying…A fascinating and often surprising story of women helping women, women hurting women, and women misunderstanding each other.”
“See transports the reader to a distant time and culture steeped in rituals and superstitions… A haunting book… The female writers who gasp for air are inspiring, as is the depth of a love that refuses to die, either on stage or in a young girl’s heart.”
“This novel belongs in your poolside bag. It is an ideal vacation book—suspenseful, romantic—that will keep you in your lounge chair for hours. At the same time, Peony in Love is far more than a delicious but ultimately lightweight beach read…See paints here a sweeping, authentically rendered portrait of family and society. She captures the spiritual, near-magical rituals of a culture, while showing the conflicts that such traditions are bound to foster.”
See’s well researched, carefully embroidered novel transports her reader into a world where women were pampered and preened but had little power over their lives or fates. Along the way, she explores the contradictions of tradition, the complexities of love and family obligation, and the magical power that comes from a story well told. Like Peony’s journey of self-discovery, it’s a trip filled with unexpected lessons and literary rewards.”
In seventeenth-century China, Peony, a sheltered and obedient young girl, is allowed to see the controversial opera The Peony Pavilion as part of her sixteenth-birthday celebration. During the performance, which takes three evenings to complete, she meets and falls in love with a mysterious young man. Already promised in marriage, she mourns for the love she cannot have, only to discover as she is dying that her stranger is her betrothed, Wu Ren. After her death, the burial rituals are unfinished, and she cannot go to her ancestors. Instead, she haunts her lover and uses Ren’s new wife to write commentary on the opera to try to reach him, beginning a long and harrowing journey toward fulfillmen t and eternal rest. See brings the Chinese culture of the Manchu dynasty to life, using the wedding and burial customs to further the plot. Her novel takes on the feel of ancient writing and rivals The Peony Pavilion in romance and political commentary. But through it all, she manages to make her characters real and sympathetic and the plot twists compelling. - Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist
Set in 17th-century China, See's fifth novel is a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a family saga and a work of musical and social history. As Peony, the 15-year-old daughter of the wealthy Chen family, approaches an arranged marriage, she commits an unthinkable breach of etiquette when she accidentally comes upon a man who has entered the family garden. Unusually for a girl of her time, Peony has been educated and revels in studying The Peony Pavilion, a real opera published in 1598, as the repercussions of the meeting unfold. The novel's plot mirrors that of the opera, and eternal themes abound: an intelligent girl chafing against the restrictions of expected behavior; fiction's educative powers; the rocky path of love between lovers and in families. It figures into the plot that generations of young Chinese women, known as the lovesick maidens, became obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, and, in a Werther-like passion, many starved themselves to death. See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, etc.) offers meticulous depiction of women's roles in Qing and Ming dynasty China (including horrifying foot-binding scenes) and vivid descriptions of daily Qing life, festivals and rituals. Peony's vibrant voice, perfectly pitched between the novel's historical and passionate depths, carries her story beautifully-in life and afterlife. (July) - Publishers Weekly
More praise for Peony in Love from the Book Club readers:
“I have read On Gold Mountain and Snowflower and the Secret Fan. I believe Peony In Love is Lisa See's best novel yet. As always, the storytelling kept me completely absorbed, and the trip through the afterlife was unforgettable. I plan to recommend it to my book club at our next meeting.”
-- Mary Schreiner
“Lisa See has done it again. Peony In Love is not only an interesting read but filled with the history and culture of the Chinese women. To be entertained and educated at the same time is such a treat The manner in which Lisa See intertwines the novel with the opera The Peony Pavilion is mesmerizing and a work of literary genius.”
---Mary Healey, Avon, Ct.
“I'm a really big fan of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan so I wasn't sure she could pull off another story as great but she did. Not only will I recommend this book to other book clubs, I'll pass along the recommendation to EVERYONE. This one has innocence, devastation, and joy--something for nearly everyone who loves the intriguing mystery of the Asian culture. It will certainly go down as a favorite for the year.”
--Anne Glasgow, Austin TX
“As anticipated, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is a beautiful love story! I am meeting with my book club tonight and will be recommending that we read it this summer. This is definitely a book suggestion that I know will be accepted. All I have to say is that it's written by Lisa See and just as wonderful as "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" and they'll say yes.”
“I enjoyed it very much even though this is not a genre I usually take to. It was an enchanting book that is sure to do well.”
--Amanda Ishtayeh from Mason, Ohio
“This was an enjoyable read & especially as it was historical fiction I had suggested Snow Flower & the Secret Fan to both my book clubs who read it We seem to be on a Mid Eastern & Eastern kick at present so I will suggest Peony next.”
Agnes Buckley in NC
“The intriguing story of Chinese culture and their understanding of the afterlife was fascinating and to learn about women in mid seventeenth century China who were published authors was so surprising. Lisa See has once again combined history with fiction to tell an amazing story.”
Lisa See on Peony in Love