Peony in Love by Lisa See

The only thing worth note right now is that I’m approximately two weeks away from being completely finished with school.

(If anyone is interested in hiring an intelligent, dedicated highschool grad looking to save money for college, now is your chance.)

I surprised myself when I suddenly decided that I absolutely had to read this book right now. I was doing history homework, you see, and being completely irritated and bored out of my mind, stuck in that space where I’m demanding to know what purpose this information will have for me (really, we’re talking US tariffs in the 1930’s, a time when tariffs changed every other week, and I had to read about every single one). I started considering how many better ways there are to learn history. Then I thought of the other two books I’ve read by Lisa See, who writes fascinating novels about women growing up during different periods in China’s history. This one is told from the point of view of young Peony, and takes place between the years 1660 and 1694, approximately.

At sixteen, Peony is the beautiful daughter of the wealthy Chen family. She is to be married away in only five months. The book begins on the first day of the Double Seven festival- the seventh day of the seventh month, which also happens to be Peony’s birthday. Festivals are, for the most part, happy times of celebration, but this year the Chen family has arranged something special: a private performance of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavilion. Because it’s improper for unmarried young women to be seen or be in the company of men, the women watch the opera from behind a screen. Party way through the performance, she begins to feel overwhelmed, and leaves her family behind to take a walk and get some air.

On her excursion, Peony runs into a mysterious young man, and even though she is a very loyal daughter, she can’t help but be entranced by the charming poet. They meet again, on each night of the Double Seven festival, and then part ways.

While I do love Lisa See for her fantastically informative writing, her books are a little heavy. This one, at 275 pages, took my nine days to read. It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s up, though. It’s not a lack of interest, or that it’s difficult, it just takes forever. It’s the exact opposite of a quick read.

This book was probably my least favorite of the three I’ve read, but you see, it’s very hard to explain why without revealing a very major plot point. Even the summary given on the book can’t explain the book; it sounds like some mystical journey through hell, with demons and sword fighting. In reality, it is a very deep book about a very tragic love. It is powerfully feminine (and feminist). It was magical and scary and fantastic. It was a very good books, because being the least of three, behind two exceptional books, is not the worst thing I could say about a book on my site.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to Lisa See is that her books are as much about the Chinese culture as they are about the events through which the characters pace. Of course, footbinding gets a brief highlight- am I the only one fascinated by this?- but what really plays a lead part in this one are the marriage and funeral rituals. The ancient Chinese beliefs in the afterworld are played straight. It’s all very, very different from how we are now, and I can’t get enough of that.

Here’s something fun that happened the other day. I was watching the movie Mulan with my little sister (she’s nine and she’s never seen it; it was my duty as her role model to right this wrong), and suddenly I ticked and went, “Why aren’t Mulan’s feet bound?” I mean, Mulan was clearly from a wealthy family. Her father was an important man. Suddenly it all seemed improbably to me. And I thought that the story was based on a real woman, too, so I was wondering how all of this was accomplished. Today, I did the research. The answer to this conundrum is actually very simple.

The Mulan legend (only a legend, I’m afraid) first surfaced around the year 400 AD. Chinese women did not start practicing the art of footbinding until 900 AD. So Mulan wouldn’t have had bound feet. For more information on Mulan, go here. For more information on footbinding, read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. Or, if you’re pressed for time and you really need to know about body mutilation right now, go here. You should still read Snow Flower, though.

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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