Summary and book reviews of Peony in Love by Lisa See

Peony in Love

A Novel

By Lisa See

Peony in Love
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2007,
    272 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2008,
    320 pages.

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About this Book

Book Summary

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

Chapter 1

part i

In the Garden

Riding the Wind

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 and anticipation. Beginning tonight, I would attend a production of The Peony Pavilion mounted in our garden. I loved this opera and had collected eleven of the thirteen printed versions available. I liked to lie in bed and read of the maiden Liniang and her dream lover, their adventures, and their ultimate triumph. But for three nights, culminating on Double Seven— the seventh day of the seventh month, the day of the lovers’ festival, and my birthday—I would actually see the opera, which was normally forbidden to girls and women. My father had invited other families for the festivities. We’d have contests and banquets. It was going to be amazing.

Willow sat up and rubbed her eyes. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. First and foremost, Peony in Love is about love. What are the different kinds of love that Peony experiences? How does Peony’s love for Ren change through the years? Have you had similar experiences in your life?

  2. In what ways is mother love explored? How does it change from a mother’s or daughter’s perspective? Do these things still hold true for mothers and daughters today?

  3. What does Peony learn about mother love and in what ways does she experience it herself?

  4. One thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun wrote, “All things not at peace will cry out.” What do you think he meant by that? And in what ways does this inspire Peony and the other women writers in the novel?

  5. In what ways does Peony long to be ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Peony In Love hits all the right notes to be a popular book for 21st century female readers, especially book club members. In fact, it's an absolute shoo-in for book clubs, replete as it is with talking points that explore love, loss and redemption, and plentiful details about ancient Chinese rituals and beliefs, many of which live on into modern times (such as the believe that ghosts cannot turn corners). Added to which, See's heroines, in their downtrodden determination to follow the path of intellectual freedom, are very sympathetic to a modern reader. Some readers may find the level of detail a little too much - no opportunity to extrapolate on a cultural more is left untapped, no chance to expand on a ritual or piece of writing is left unexplored. But for those many readers who read to learn as much as to be entertained, this powerful, graceful and revealing book has a great deal to offer.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (1389 words).

Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

See's gossamer weave of cultural detail and Chinese afterlife mythology forms an improbably inspiring tapestry of love and letters.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Peony's vibrant voice, perfectly pitched between the novel's historical and passionate depths, carries her story beautifully—in life and afterlife.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

It is a poignant comment on the culture that this girl can only truly live after she dies, but also something of a narrative misstep. For a novel so deeply rooted in the ways women struggled for creative expression within a byzantine set of social constraints, Peony's early release instantly erases one of the most compelling reasons to read. B-

Washington Post

There's much here to be savored and a great deal to be learned.

San Francisco Chronicle - Jami Attenberg

Never have I read a book more appropriate for polite discussion over a bottle of wine among some girlfriends. (This is a criticism of neither the book nor book clubs. In fact, I am a member of a book club ... ). See's novel takes place in a foreign land during a tumultuous time, it's ambitious in scope, and myriad new concepts and terms are explained thoughtfully. Practically every chapter has a cliffhanger. There is much discussion of themes of love, loss and renewal. And there is a serious feminist message (in fact, there are many serious messages in "Peony") about the importance of a woman's intellectual freedom. Read me, love me, discuss me, this book screams.

The Seattle Times - Ellen Emry Heltzel

The result is a more contrived and complicated story than "Snow Flower," one that occasionally stumbles, as when the narrator's delicate perceptions are interrupted by a jarring contemporary colloquialism such as "she strove to be more than a pretty dress." It's a novel that gathers strength slowly but has cumulative grace — primarily because See never loses sight of her overarching subject, the way women lived and were regarded in traditional Chinese culture.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

[A]s she did in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See dwells on the kinks provided by the binding of women's feet for reasons of eroticism, caste and subjugation. But this novel is more commonplace than its preoccupations with history, ritual and the afterworld would suggest.

For all its attention to formal rules, Peony in Love becomes puzzlingly inconsistent once it wafts Peony out of her earthly body. She becomes a vapor, but she is still able to hug, speak and think.

The New York Times - Sven Birkerts

Peony in Love, is—for the reader willing to venture a crucial suspension of disbelief—a complex period tapestry inscribed with the age-old tragedy of love and death and bordered round with vignettes from Chinese metaphysics, dynastic history and the intimate chamber tales of women’s friendship and rivalry…See is gifted with a lucid, graceful style and a solid command of her many motifs.

The Houston Chronicle - Lisa Jennifer Selzman

This riveting dichotomy is at the core of what is most profound about See's poetic, ambitious novel. Their world dictated that "[a] woman's greatest strength is to give birth to sons," that a girl learned to write only so one day she could teach her son how to, and that women who died giving birth went "straight to the Blood-Gathering Lake, a place where women suffered in a perpetual hell for the pollution of their failed childbearing."

How extraordinary, then, that large numbers of women from that era were able to find and immortalize their voices, so that we might — centuries later, thanks to the exceedingly talented See — honor them by reading of their lives.

The Boston Globe - Jessica Treadway

See is a master storyteller, calling on her knowledge of history, myth, and current international events to craft intricate narratives that are at once edifying and evocative. In "Peony in Love," she leads us on a literary adventure into the past that will have relevance to today's readers who value drama, accuracy, and the lure of the written word.

Reader Reviews
Elizabeth

Not as good as Snowflower and the Secret Fan...STRANGE
This book was very strange...how the young girl starves herself to death because she doesn't marry the man she loves. Then all the strange things start to happen after death....it was bizarre how she could see people and go into their lives and ...   Read More

sam

peony in love
This is my second time reading this book. If I was able to I would marry it. It is just so amazing the way Lisa See writes. The pain Peony goes through trying to make Ren fall for her and know that she still loves him. Also having to watch Ze burn ...   Read More

Judy

Fascinating
I highly recommend Peony in Love. I love the way Lisa See can portray a long-ago Chinese culture that is firmly grounded in historical fact but brought to vivid life by a compelling story and such engaging characters. I loved this about Snow Flower ...   Read More

Beth

Enjoyed
This is another interesting and fun book to read from Lisa See - author of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," Like that book, "Peony in Love" goes into the history and culture of China while also presenting characters that are well developed and worth...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Interesting Facts about Lisa See

  • Lisa See was born in Paris in 1955 but grew up in Los Angeles, spending much of her time in Chinatown.
  • Peony in Love is her fifth novel and seventh book. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family traces 100 years of her family's adventures in America starting with her great-grandfather.
  • Her fourth novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (June 2005) is about "nu shu," the secret writing developed and used by women in a small county in...

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