Peony In Love by Lisa See

Somehow, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan made it into my collection. I loved the beautiful story of friendship, sacrifice, and the now lost art of nushu (secret women’s writing). I finally got around to reading Peony In Love and I wasn’t disappointed.  Lisa See knows how to weave a story full of richness and historical accuracy that is hard to put down.

“Two days before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up so early that my maid was still asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed. I should have scolded Willow, but I didn’t because I wanted a few moments alone to savor my excitement.”

Peony is young woman from a wealthy family in Ming Dynasty China about to be married to a man she has never met but whose father had been a good friend to her own father. Though her mother does not approve, Peony is allowed to attend an opera, The Peony Pavilion, in the garden of the Cheng Family Villa on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. Her father is presenting the opera to curry favor with powerful business interests. There she meets a man who will change her life and set her on a journey where she learns about love and relationships, betrayal and sacrifice, and women and their place and voice in society.

It took me awhile to get into the story. But not because the language wasn’t lush and beautiful, or because the story wasn’t engaging. In the beginning I was lost trying to keep up with what was going on in the opera while  multiple characters are introduced along with  all their attendant theories and trains of thought. I was having a hard time keeping it straight and I didn’t think I was going to make it through. The opera is a fairly central piece of the story and I was confused about its implications on society, love and the afterlife. There was also the aspect of adjusting to a different culture. As usual the foot binding scenes left me very squeamish. However, with a little bit of patience with the first the first few chapters, this book unfolds into a wonderful and rich story. I learned so much about women writers in ancient times and how they were allowed to step forward and be heard in a unique period in history.

See’s attention to the details of the culture are astounding and once I was able to adjust to all that was going on I was riveted and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  See (no pun intended!) an example:

“On the second night, when the Manchus slaughtered our servants in the main courtyard, my husband reminded and his concubines that we were to safeguard our chastity with our lives and that all women should be prepared to make sacrifices for their husbands and sons.  The concubines were still concerned with the fate of their gowns, powders, jewels and ornaments, but your mother and I did not need to hear this admonition.  We knew our duty.  We were prepared too do the correct thing.”

I know that I will be reading the rest of her work!

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