“Read a selected list of book quotes here: http://www.lunch.com/cafelibri/Lists-74-2487-_Peony_in_Love_by_Lisa_See_Book_Quotes_.html
To be honest, my first inclination was to rate "Peony in Love" as an "average" read. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. My initial disappointment reflected my expectations of the novel while reading. First, the title and purpose of the book were misleading, at least as far as I was concerned. I expected a retelling of "The Peony Pavilion," a tale that reminded me of "Romeo and Juliet."
Because "Peony in Love" began as a retelling of a famous Chinese opera, much of the story in Part 1 was predictable, which lessened my overall enjoyment. Why read this book when I could have read the original opera, which was probably better? Then, the story morphed into something different. However, the twists made the tale difficult to follow. Was this a love story about Peony and her mysterious poet? Was this a love story about a family, specifically the women of the Chen Family Villa? These were just two of many questions that plagued me all through Parts I and II.
As the book progressed, I realized that the theme and purpose revolved around a love for writing, which wasn't clear until Part III. After finishing the novel, I gave myself time to reflect on its meaning and slowly grasped the massive undertaking that Lisa See took. True, this was a retelling of "The Peony Pavilion," but it was even more. See explored the writing and creation of "The Three Wives' Commentary," an academic book written by three women:
1. Chen Tong, born ca. 1649 (Peony in the book)
2. Tan Ze, born ca. 1656
3. Qian Yi, born ca. 1671
These women were Chinese scholars, not officially recognized, who loved writing. Their importance is best expressed by See herself in the brief history reference at the beginning, "In 1694, "The Three Wives' Commentary" became the first book of its kind to be written and published by women anywhere in the world."
"Peony in Love" deserved a higher rating because of its complexities, storytelling, and See's goal: To show that women have been writing and publishing as long as men, even if their stories got "lost" in history. This is the same theme I express with many historical fiction short stories I write. I'm still in awe at how See brought these different stories together into one masterpiece.
As I mentioned, the book is divided into three parts:
Part I: In the Garden
Part II: Roaming with the Wind
Part III: Under the Plume Tree
The setting is seventeenth century China after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed. The reader sees the "world" through the young eyes of Peony, who's turning sixteen. The Chen Family Villa is exquisitely described, especially since a lot of women weren't allowed to leave their family compounds until marriage. The setting is enhanced by the historical research (the novel is based on a true story), and the Chinese traditions and rituals that See painstakingly paints of another time and place foreign to many modern readers.
The poetic beauty of ancient China is mirrored by the colorful characters that See develops. Even though the book is about three women, the entire story is told from the first person perspective of Peony. This stylistic choice annoyed me, though. I wanted more insights into other characters, like Peony's mother, father, grandmother, and most especially the two other female writers, Tan Ze and Qian Yi. I felt cheated that everything was filtered through Peony, who I quickly wrote off as a silly "lovesick maiden."
At first, Peony was the most boring character. Her actions were predictable and reflected her young, immature mindset. She was a spoiled and selfish brat. I didn't respect anything she wrote or thought because she was always thinking of herself. There were many important events happening outside Peony's little world, especially to her mother and grandmother, and I was frustrated that she was blind to them. Of course, that was how she was raised to be.
As the book progressed, so did Peony's thinking. Slowly, I warmed up to her. I never did embrace her character fully, but I appreciated the positive affects the other characters had on her as well as her growth throughout the story.
Out of all the characters, my favorites were Tan Ze and Qian Yi. Tan Ze was an amazing antagonist while Yi represented a delicate balance between Ze's and Peony's overwhelming personalities.
Lisa See had numerous resources to use to make this book successful, and it shows in her writing style. The story was practically written for her, at least through historical documents. Rather than waste unnecessary time on the plot, she spent a great deal developing her characters and expanding on their personalities, which history very rarely captures accurately if at all. See's writing flows on the pages of the book like water down a stream. Everything is very precise and poetic at the same time. She uses traditional ideas that women are too emotional or weak to reflect on the strengths of the fairer sex. In this way, she undermines the preconceived notion that emotional writing cannot be academic writing. These women were scholars in their time period and are still acclaimed critics today...and what they analyzed was the theme of love, both in their own lives and in the opera.
"Peony in Love" is a read that many adults would enjoy and maybe some teenagers depending upon their intellectual capabilities. It helps if you are already interested in Chinese culture, literature, and history. I cannot express enough how useful a degree in Chinese literature or history would be when reading this piece. Specifically, if one has read either "The Peony Pavilion" or "The Three Wives' Commentary" your understanding and enjoyment of "Peony in Love" will increase. There are too many nuances that are missed, and it's easy to become confused like I was without a better appreciation of what See is writing about. I recommend reading, at least a couple of times before starting the book, her Chinese history introduction and the preface from "The Peony Pavilion" included at the beginning of "Peony in Love." They both inform the purpose of See's writing and sets an appropriate tone/mood. Finally, at the end of the book, Lisa See includes a very important "Author's Note" and "Acknowledgements" section that further illuminates her intentions and the sources she used when writing. Again, I recommend reading both sections a few times after having completed the book to solidify your comprehension.
I'm very grateful I took the time to reflect on my reading because it allowed me to appreciate "Peony in Love" for all it has to offer rather than relying on my initial shallow thoughts. Still, I couldn't rate this book a +5 purely because I didn't like Peony's voice, which could have been stronger. Some parts of the artistic layout also frustrated me. I would have preferred the women to have separate perspectives that come together at the end of the novel rather than filtering everything through Peony. Still, this was an amazing attempt at perfection. I only hope that my writing inspires others the way Lisa See's did.”