Death and Art Intertwine in Peony in Love

Hello, everyone! Today I want to discuss one of my favorite novels, Lisa See’s Peony in Love. If you read my last review on The Blood of Flowers, you might think that I have a thing for historical fiction about female artists and I can’t say you’re wrong 🙂 I also wrote another review on Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls duology which you can read herePeony in Love was the first Lisa See novel I ever read, and her insightful glimpse into the intersection between femininity and traditional Chinese culture led me to read and love many of her other novels. But while See’s other novels focus more on the realistic trials of women in China, Peony in Love dares to go beyond, diving into 16th century Chinese opera and the Chinese afterlife. She also challenges the traditional role and value of women in traditional China without rendering judgment. With so many ideas to balance, See’s novel might have become unwieldy, but she manages to write a thoughtful novel with delicate prose.

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Synopsis: On her 16th birthday, Peony, a wealthy yet incredibly sheltered noblewoman, attends the first night of the performance of the famous opera The Peony Pavilion. As a devoted fan of the opera, Peony is in rapture over the performance, but overcome by the emotions of the main characters, she leaves the opera to walk in the garden and meets a handsome, eloquent stranger. Over the next two nights, the two fall in love. After the opera ends, Peony, who is soon to be wed to in an arranged marriage, falls into a deep depression. She spends all of her energy writing commentary on The Peony Pavilion and even hopes to be consumed by lovesickness like its protagonist. Even though her parents try to save her, Peony starves herself to death and is whisked away to the afterlife a few days before her wedding.

Once dead, Peony realizes the limitations of her own worldview. Her experience leads to her to reflect on her life, her role in the world, her perspective on her family and the women who surround her, and her purpose in the afterworld. Most importantly, she learns to reconcile her love for her mysterious stranger, Wu Ren, and her sadness at her impossible wish to be reunited with him in the world of the living.

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Peony in Love is the type of novel that you have to read at least twice, because the first time you’ll be so shocked at Peony’s death that you won’t even pay attention to the rest of the novel. I remember when I first read it I was heartbroken and angry at her death, as well as frustrated once I found out that Peony’s mysterious stranger was in fact the man she was betrothed to marry and it was only her own stubbornness and obsession that kept her from discovering this fact.

Peony’s personality is one of the more difficult obstacles to overcome in the book. In the first part she is spoiled, vain and naive. Watching her succumb to the romantic ideas of The Peony Pavilion, ultimately to the cost of her own life, is difficult. And even though she becomes more self-aware after her death, she doesn’t fully mature until the end of the book. But that’s why her arc is so satisfying to read. I love her development and I love how even though she becomes mature, she never seems like an unrealistic portrayal of a 16th century Chinese girl. By that, I mean that she will always retain a certain blind faith in the traditions that constrain her.

For example, before she dies, she believes that love is only romantic, and once she’s dead, she starts to believe that love is only sexual. Only does Peony’s evolution come full circle when she realizes that true love is a combination of both. But even with this evolution, Peony still believes in being completely dedicated to one’s husband and existing only for their enjoyment, so while she realizes love is multifaceted, she never understands that the type of love she yearns for is one-sided. But that’s what I appreciate about the book, because even though as a 21st century girl, I disagree with her perspective, she remains an authentic perspective of her time period.

One aspect of the novel that makes it unique is its focus on female artistic obsession. When authors typically write about obsessive women, usually they are obsessed in a romantic sense, but even though Peony’s obsession thrives off of her romantic feelings for Wu Ren, it is initially sparked by her love for the opera The Peony Pavilion. She doesn’t starve herself because she longs for Ren, she starves herself because she believes that the resulting light-headedness gives her artistic clarity. Peony is so devoted to finishing her commentary on the opera that she pursues her project through her almost three generations.

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A poster for the opera

The novel questions what it means to be feminine in a society that simultaneously reveres femininity and despises it. At the outset, Peony’s views her mother and dead grandmother as perfect examples of traditional Confucian femininity. Her grandmother is even honored as a martyr for sacrificing her life to protect her husband and sons from the Manchus during the violent period of Chinese history known as the Cataclysm. It’s only when Peony travels to the afterworld and meets her grandmother that she realizes that her family has sanitized her grandmother’s and mother’s story to make them into  ideal Chinese women.

One of the most important characteristics for traditional Chinese women was to think only of their own inner realms. The Peony Pavilion opened Peony’s eyes to the world around her, causing her to realize the restrictive nature of her life. When her mother burns her books in hopes of saving her life, and the doctor claims that reading is what caused her death, See probes us to think about whether it’s the need for knowledge that killed these women, or the society that kept them from it.

In my review of her duology, I said that one of See’s main faults is her inability to characterize her male characters as strongly as her female characters. See doesn’t have this problem in Peony In Love; her male characters, primarily Wu Ren and Peony’s father, are as rich and complex as her female characters. But while the men are well developed, it is of course the female characters who shine through the pages. None of the five female characters fall prey to common stereotypes, or if they begin as stereotypes, they are eventually shown to be multi-layered. I have endless appreciation for See’s ability not to take women at face value. Every woman in her stories deserves to be heard, no matter the quality of what they have to say. I think that’s something to be admired.

Final Consensus: See’s novel is a beautifully penned look at one girl’s inner struggle against her wish to pursue her art and her faith in societal expectations. Heartfelt and at times tragic, the novel explores the Chinese fascination with death and also looks at how one’s expectations of a person can follow them even into the afterlife. I recommend this book for anyone who loves a good ghost story as much as a good romance, though luckily, this book has both.

P.S

Unless you’re of Chinese heritage (or extremely well versed in traditional Chinese opera) chances are you’ve probably never heard of The Peony Pavilion. I hadn’t, so I looked up a few videos. It’s very different from Western opera and beautiful for it. Here’s one video giving you a look into the opera so you can go into the novel with a little background knowledge about what Peony is talking about.

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