Excerpt from Peony in Love by Lisa See, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Peony in Love

A Novel

by Lisa See

Peony in Love
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 320 pages

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My mother was old-fashioned in her beliefs and her behavior. In the social disorder that followed the Cataclysm, when the Ming dynasty fell and the Manchu invaders took power, many elite women enjoyed leaving their villas to travel the waterways in pleasure boats, write about what they saw, and publish their observations. Mama was completely against things like that. She was a loyalist—still dedicated to the overthrown Ming emperor—but she was excessively traditional in other ways. When many women in the Yangzi delta were reinterpreting the Four Virtues—virtue, demeanor, speech, and work—my mother constantly chided me to remember their original meaning and intent. “Hold your tongue at all times,” she liked to say. “But if you must speak, wait until there is a good moment. Do not offend anyone.”

My mother could get very emotional about these things because she was governed by qing: sentiment, passion, and love. These forces tie together the universe and stem from the heart, the seat of consciousness. My father, on the other hand, was ruled by li—cold reason and mastered emotions—and he snorted indifferently at her concern that strangers were coming.

“You don’t complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”

“But my daughter and my nieces aren’t in the garden when they’re here! There’s no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other families you’ve invited?”

“You know why I invited them,” he spat out sharply, his patience gone. “Commissioner Tan is important to me right now. Do not argue further with me on this!”

I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden severity; she didn’t speak.

Mama managed the inner realm, and she always kept fish-shaped locks of beaten metal hidden in the folds of her skirts in case she needed to secure a door to punish a concubine, preserve bolts of silk that had arrived from one of our factories for home use, or protect the pantry, the curtain-weaving quarters, or the room set aside for our servants to pawn their belongings when they needed extra money. That she never used a lock unjustly had earned her added respect and gratitude from those who resided in the women’s chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.

Baba’s flash of anger was replaced by a conciliatory tone he often took with my mother. “No one will see our daughter or our nieces. All the proprieties will be maintained. This is a special occasion. I must be gracious in my dealings. If we open our doors this one time, other doors may soon open.”

“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.

I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadn’t understood all that had been said, but I really didn’t care. What mattered was that the opera would still be performed in our garden, and my cousins and I would be the first girls in all Hangzhou to see it. Of course we would not be out among the men. We would sit behind screens so no one could see us, as my father said.

By the time Mama entered the Spring Pavilion for breakfast, she had regained her usual composure.

“It doesn’t show good breeding for girls to eat too quickly,” she cautioned my cousins and me as she passed our table. “Your mothers-in- law will not want to see you eat like hungry carp in a pond—mouths open with yearning—when you move to your husbands’ homes. That said, we should be ready when our guests arrive.”

So we ate as hurriedly as we could and still appear to be proper young ladies.

As soon as the servants cleared the dishes, I approached my mother. “May I go to the front gate?” I asked, hoping to greet our guests.

Excerpted from Peony in Love by Lisa See Copyright © 2007 by Lisa See. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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