Peony in Love is no ordinary love story. In her fifth novel, a fictionalized account based on historical facts in the form of a ghost story, Lisa See brings alive the social and cultural milieu of women of the wealthy literati class in late seventeenth-century Qing China through the captivating first-person narrative of her lovestruck, long-suffering, and ultimately quite remarkable protagonist, Peony Chen.
It is here, in the garden of the Chen family villa in Hangzhou in the Yangze delta region, that we first encounter the lovely and intellectually curious Peony on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, surprised by the special performance of the famous (and much censored) Ming dynasty opera, The Peony Pavilion, that her parents have organized for the occasion.
That evening Peony first glimpses and falls irretrievably in love with a handsome young poet named Ren. She is unaware that this stranger, as fate would have it, is the son of friends whom her parents have arranged for her to marry in the coming year. Ren wins Peony’s heart and mind when he murmurs to her, "I want a marriage of companions—one of shared lives and shared poems… If we are husband and wife, we would collect books, read, and drink tea together."
See uses the famous Chinese opera love story to mirror and foreshadow the fate of Peony as a spirited young woman who dares to choose her own destiny as a writer and even to die from lovesickness for the man she chooses rather than enter into the customary arranged marriage of the times. Such possibilities were possible for women during the particular 30-year period in which See’s novel is set because the Qing dynasty had collapsed and a time of political turmoil and instability ensued as the Manchus seized power. Artistic creativity, particularly for women, became possible in ways that had been unthinkable under the Qing regime. More women writers, according to See, were being published at the time in the Hangzhou delta region than anywhere else in the world, despite the fact that women were regarded as of little value except for marrying.
See’s genius lies in credibly sustaining Peony’s story over the years of Manchu rule during which time Peony goes through many transformations: she comes of age, falls in love with a man she believes she is destined never to be with, and soon thereafter dies tragically from anorexia caused by romantic longing. Peony then ends up wandering in the afterlife for 29 years as an unhappy "hungry" ghost simply because her father failed to perform the ritual of dotting her ancestor tablet, an act which would have assured the peaceful journey of her soul in its traditional three parts.
Masterfully, See recreates the Chinese afterlife, rich with complex customs, rituals, and beliefs, as the reader journeys with Peony in her hungry, ghostly state while she summons the resolve to turn adversity to creative advantage and literary fame. As a ghost, Peony guides her two "sister-wives" spiritually and emotionally—her two childhood friends, Chen Tong and Tan Ze, who successively marry her poet-love—to achieve her own ends: her beloved Ren’s happiness and the realization of her sister-wives’ respective literary talents as well as her own rare literary gifts.
Together these three highly educated and inventive women conspire to write the first book of its kind written by women (and based on the historical work by the same name), The Three Wives’ Commentary, which is a critical commentary on The Peony Pavilion and also includes their own views on women in society, romance, and love.
See has succeeded in bringing the emotional lives and spirits of the departed characters in her novel vibrantly alive—in the character of Peony, above all, and also in Peony’s mother and grandmother. Peony is finally redeemed from her "hungry" wanderings and her love for Ren is requited when he discovers that her ancestor tablet has remained undotted and performs the final act of love in the story by dotting Peony’s tablet and thus marrying their spirits 29 years into his beloved’s afterlife.
Reviewed by Barbara K. Bundy