I’m a fan of books by and about Chinese women. I like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior was almost transformative for me. So when I read Lisa See’s much-loved SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, I was surprised when I didn’t love it. The nu shu was fascinating, but the narration was so jam-packed with (admittedly exceptionally well-researched) facts and minute details that it felt strangely distant. The ending was a knockout, but I wasn’t really engrossed until then. Since her follow-up, PEONY IN LOVE is generally less popular, I didn’t plan to read it, but I read Lisa See’s website and was so intrigued by the historical context and incorporation of the supernatural that I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I really enjoyed it. I think I get why the response wasn’t as positive–the book has its flaws, which I’ll discuss–but I was still thoroughly engrossed.
PEONY IN LOVE is set in 17th century China in Hangzhou Province. Unlike Snow Flower and Lily of See’s previous book, 15-year-old Peony is wealthy and highly educated in the arts, literature, and culture. However, she is even more cloistered and restricted, having never been allowed to step outside her family’s grounds. When her father celebrates her sixteenth birthday and impending marriage by arranging a performance of her favorite opera The Peony Pavilion–women traditionally are not allowed to watch operas, only read them, and The Peony Pavilion is extremely controversial for its supposed encouragement of sexual impropriety, so her father assures her mother she will be watching behind silk screens so visiting men cannot see her, to preserve decorum–it stirs emotions inside Peony she has never felt before. When she meets a young poet during the performance, she is overwhelmed by romantic longing and desire, even courting scandal by sneaking out to meet him in the gardens. No longer able to be content with a loveless, arranged marriage, Peony becomes a ‘lovesick maiden’ and wastes away to death. However, her funeral rites are conducted improperly, so she becomes a hungry ghost.
Though I have my romantic side, I was a little shocked by how moved I was by Peonu’s lovesickness. It’s easy to dismiss the lovesick maidens as melodramatic teenagers (and Peony, quite realistically, is rather naive in her ideas of love at first), but Peony’s wasting away is more than hormones–it’s about freedom and a longing for choice. Peony’s relationship with her family, but especially her mother and grandmother, is stunningly beautiful and touching.
Lisa See is so meticulous about her research and wow, does it show. The book is mesmerizing in its depiction of a very particular time and place in Chinese history–she does a really, really good job capturing the intricacies of a specific cultural moment, both in vividly bringing customs and setting to life and, more intriguingly, attentively capturing the complexities of the position of women across class and shifting social mores. Traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife have an incredibly elaborate mythology, but the particulars about ancestor worship, funeral rites, and the spirit realm are seamlessly explained and interwoven into the story.
I was enthralled almost from start to finish, but the book does have significant flaws. My biggest issue by far was the portrayal of Peony’s “sister-wife”, Tan Ze. Ghostly Peony attempts to vicariously live through her beloved poet’s new bride through spectral influence, and it comes across as well, a very weird sort of rape by proxy/supernatural possession. The exact nature of the ghosts’ influence over the living is never really that well fleshed out, and I certainly don’t object to introducing moral ambiguity, but while Peony later regrets her actions, it seemed a little unfair when Tan Ze is portrayed as so unsympathetic, almost sociopathically so. There is an attempt at the end to make her more human, but her motives actually seemed more unconvincing. Peony’s second sister-wife, by contrast, is such a model of goodness that she never really comes into her own as a character–she does make some unexpected choices, but I never really got the sense that she was acting entirely as a free agent from Peony’s influence.
Still, I can forgive some missed marks, because it’s an incredibly ambitious novel and overall a very satisfying one. Peony’s afterlife journey is deeply resonant, the exploration of love (in many forms) is almost physically palpable in its dramatic weight, and as a portrait of perhaps women’s greatest desire throughout history–the desire to be heard–it couldn’t do much better.