Day 161: Peony in Love

Cover for Peony in LoveI’ll start out right away by saying that after reading the touching and engrossing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I was disappointed by Lisa See’s Peony in Love. The innocuous description on the back of the book gives you no warning of the subject of the novel. I think that is unfortunate, because not very many readers of See’s other books will be prepared for it.

Peony’s sixteenth birthday is approaching. In six months she will “marry out” to the man who has been her fiancé since she was a child, although she only knows his name. She is excited because that night her family will begin hosting an epic opera by Tang Xianzu that she loves, and the secluded women will be allowed to watch it through a screen.

The story of the opera is important to the novel. It is about a girl who dies for love and haunts her lover until she is eventually brought back to life in honor of her steadfastness.

That evening, Peony peeps out from behind the screen and spots a handsome young man, with whom she falls instantly in love. Later in a brief absence from the performance she encounters him accidentally, and he begs her to meet him the next night. Such behavior is strictly forbidden. She has never been alone with a man outside her family, but she meets him anyway.

I usually try not to give away important plot points, but I will tell you one thing that happens in the first third of the book because I don’t think you can make a fair decision about reading it without knowing. So, this is my spoiler warning. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way to impart my objections without revealing this key plot point.

Convinced that she will be forced to marry a man she does not love even though she doesn’t know who her fiancé is, Peony starves herself to death, like the heroine in the opera. Just before she dies, when it is too late to save her, she finds out that her beloved actually is Ren, her fiancé (a twist that I found predictable). Presumably, she spends the rest of the novel as a ghost. I say presumably because after another 100 pages or so I quit reading.

I was already fed up with Peony because she wastes two opportunities to avoid the misunderstanding that causes her death. As in many movies, a few words could have cleared things up. That is, she and her lover never bother to exchange names. In addition, after the opera, when she is still in the audience, her father introduces her fiancé to the company. She is so convinced he is a stranger that she shuts her eyes. How likely is that?

Peony is already an extremely foolish girl even before she begins starving herself. I continued reading out of interest in Chinese beliefs about the afterlife, but when Peony begins manipulating Ren’s wife, I found this development too distasteful to continue. I regret that I cannot recommend this book, although I am still eager to try other books by Lisa See.

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