Peony in Love

( 225 )

Overview

“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, ...

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Peony in Love

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Overview

“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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Peony Pavilion, an early-17th-century Chinese opera, serves as the backdrop of this jarring historical novel. Like the heroine of the opera, Peony lives a privileged, caged existence, fettered by strict propriety and familial expectations. Set during the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, Lisa See's Peony in Love immerses us in the beliefs and events of an empire succumbing to flux that nothing can hold back. A love that survives death; a captivating summer read; positive early reviews.
Nicholas Delbanco
A novel whose protagonist hangs, after death, from a room's rafters and climbs inside a rival's womb to untangle a child's umbilical cord, who dies of self-starvation and communes with the ghosts of her mother and grandmother, who pens a major commentary on a seemingly seditious text and ends up reconciled with both of her successor-wives -- well, suffice it to say that the pleasures of Peony in Love are neither those of logic nor chronology. Years pass in a paragraph; realms are traversed in a line. This reader felt, from time to time, almost literally transported and commends the willing suspension of Western disbelief. There's much here to be savored and a great deal to be learned.
— The Washington Post
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. These—like the fascination of "The Peony Pavilion" and the inscription of commentary, first by Peony in her feverish last days and later by the ill-fated Tan Ze and then Qian Yi, both Wu Ren's wives—are worked through with care; the historical panorama, meanwhile, encompasses everything from governmental politics to foot-binding procedures.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Set in 17th-century China, See's fifth novel is a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a family saga and a work of musical and social history. As Peony, the 15-year-old daughter of the wealthy Chen family, approaches an arranged marriage, she commits an unthinkable breach of etiquette when she accidentally comes upon a man who has entered the family garden. Unusually for a girl of her time, Peony has been educated and revels in studying The Peony Pavilion, a real opera published in 1598, as the repercussions of the meeting unfold. The novel's plot mirrors that of the opera, and eternal themes abound: an intelligent girl chafing against the restrictions of expected behavior; fiction's educative powers; the rocky path of love between lovers and in families. It figures into the plot that generations of young Chinese women, known as the lovesick maidens, became obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, and, in a Werther-like passion, many starved themselves to death. See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, etc.) offers meticulous depiction of women's roles in Qing and Ming dynasty China (including horrifying foot-binding scenes) and vivid descriptions of daily Qing life, festivals and rituals. Peony's vibrant voice, perfectly pitched between the novel's historical and passionate depths, carries her story beautifully-in life and afterlife. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Teenaged Peony lives in late 16th-century China, protected by her wealthy family, her entire life arranged for marriage and the birth of sons. Prior to her marriage, she overhears passages from the famous opera The Peony Pavilion and has a brief but life-altering conversation with a very handsome man-both strictly forbidden to an unmarried maiden. The "love-sickness" brought on by these secrets leads to Peony's death by self-starvation, as she pines for the man whose name she does not know. After her death, owing to a lapse in protocol, Peony is condemned to wander the earth as a "hungry ghost." The descriptions of her ghostly existence over the decades are interwoven with her devotion to the poet she could have married, the women he later marries, other wanderers, and The Peony Pavilion itself. As the book reveals, during the Manchu Dynasty women were oppressed severely, even in death; the foot-binding process depicted here is truly horrible. The writing is compellingly exotic and vivid, and listeners are drawn into this world by the beautiful voice of Janet Song, who brings Peony's journey to life. Highly recommended for public libraries, especially those with collections for young adults.-Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Foot-binding, opera and anorexia are feminist statements in See's (Snowflower and the Secret Fan, 2005, etc.) ghost story set in 17th-century China. The monumental (55-scene) opera Peony Pavilion, written in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, tells the tale of Liniang, who defies convention by seeking to choose her own mate, then wastes away of lovesickness. Peony, coddled teenage daughter of the Chen clan, is not the only aristocratic maiden to be love-struck by the opera (still considered outre in China today). Although promised in an arranged marriage, Peony observes a "man-beautiful" poet from behind a screen at a performance of Pavilion, and she falls in love. Risking ruin, she meets him for chaste garden trysts to discuss poetry and qinq (emotion-ruled life). As her marriage approaches, Peony emulates Liniang's self-starvation, devoting her time to annotating the pages of various editions of Pavilion. Through a tragedy of errors, Peony learns, on her deathbed, that her betrothed Wu Ren is her poet. After death, someone hides Peony's ancestor tablet, condemning her to wander the earth as a "hungry ghost." She visits Ren in dreams and pens more Pavilion marginalia. On a limbo-like "Viewing Terrace" she meets her grandmother, killed during the "Cataclysm," the carnage marking the advent of the Manchu Dynasty. Horrified, Peony witnesses Ren's marriage to her spoiled rival, Tan Ze. She molds Ze into an ideal wife, daughter-in-law and fellow Pavilion annotator. But Ze dies while pregnant, and is consigned to the Blood-Gathering Lake, special hell of women who fail at childbirth. In a world where women are punished in life and afterlife, the Manchus threaten more oppression, toward femaleliterati who organize writing groups and publish their poetry. Peony atones for Ze's fate by helping peasant girl Yi advance socially and buck the Manchu regime-by binding her feet. As Ren's third wife, Yi joins Ze and Peony in coauthoring the groundbreaking Three Wives Commentary, which examines Peony Pavilion. See's gossamer weave of cultural detail and Chinese afterlife mythology forms an improbably inspiring tapestry of love and letters. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra/Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812975222
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/19/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 252,070
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa See
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit the author’s website: www.LisaSee.com.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau
at www.apbspeakers.com  

Biography

At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. "I knew three things," See said, "I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off—‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer."

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored See accolades from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, and The School Library Journal, while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover.

Good To Know

In our interview, See shared lots of fun facts and anecdotes about herself, including:

"I asked my husband what he thought was an interesting fact about me, and he said that he always thought it was strange that when we first met I had to drink three cups of coffee before I got out of bed, but that after I got pregnant I never ever had another cup of coffee again. That didn't seem terribly exciting, so I asked my sister. She said that I take perverse pleasure in grossing people out, which I do. But this didn't seem very interesting either. I asked my mother and she remembered that I'd been a demon crawler and had once crawled away from the house, down to a busy boulevard, and was rescued by a couple of barbers. So I was a demon crawler and probably took ten years off my mother's life that day, but was it a fun fact? I've even asked some other people and they all have talked about my desire to travel and the scary places I have traveled alone. While I know that I'm a compulsive traveler, a lot of other people love to travel, so it still doesn't seem that unusual to me."

"I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco."

"I think one of the strangest things about me is the way I read books. This dates back to when I started reading chapter books as a kid and continues to this day. I read the first 20 pages, then the last 20 pages. After that, the second 20 pages and the penultimate 20 pages. I read from front to back and from back to front until I meet in the middle. Why? I can't stand not knowing what happens to the characters. Will they be okay? Will they live? Will they get together? It doesn't take away from the suspense or ruin the story for me in any way. Not doing it would ruin the story because I would have to rush and I'd be so anxious that I wouldn't be able to do anything else until I was done."

"I'm a movie fanatic. I see more than 100 movies a year. Sometimes I'll see two or three movies in a day. Between this and reading books the way I do, I have a very good sense of plot. I can watch the first five minutes of any television show and the first ten minutes of just about any movie and tell you everything that will happen. It's very rare that I'm taken by complete surprise. But to me it isn't about the surprise. I'm just curious to see how things have been structured, if the right clues have been doled out, and if the right people will get together."

"I like to eat, but I don't like to cook. I'll eat anything and have—a low point would have to be the stir-fried pig penis in China—but there are only three things I won't eat: lima beans, brains, and kidneys. I hate exercise, but I love to play tennis, walk, and hike. I love stories in any form: film, books, song, and TV. Yes, I'm a real couch potato! I'm a nut for reality shows like ‘Survivor' and ‘American Idol.' My three favorite shows this season are ‘The OC,' ‘Lost,'and ‘Battlestar Gallactica.' And I'm a not-so-closet Trekkie. (Yes, I've even been to Star Trek conventions, but I blame that on my sons.) For so long I would say I hated sci-fi, and then I finally realized that it was one of my favorite genres. Go figure. My favorite way to unwind? That would have to be sleeping, hands down. I love to sleep and I take it very seriously. We recently got a Tempur-Pedic mattress and it's my favorite purchase ever. I long to go to bed and feel enveloped."

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    1. Hometown:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Paris, France
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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. When she saw me staring at her, she scrambled to her feet and offered good wishes. I felt another flutter of excitement, so I was particular when Willow bathed me, helped me into a gown of lavender silk, and brushed my hair. I wanted to look perfect; I wanted to act perfectly.

A girl on the edge of sixteen knows how pretty she is, and as I looked in the mirror I burned with the knowledge. My hair was black and silky. When Willow brushed it, I felt the strokes from the top of my head all the way down my back. My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher. My cheeks glowed the pale pink of a peony petal. My father and mother liked to comment on how appropriate this was, because my name was Peony. I tried, as only a young girl can, to live up to the delicateness of my name. My lips were full and soft. My waist was small and my breasts were ready for a husband’s touch. I wouldn’t say I was vain. I was just a typical fifteen-year-old girl. I was secure in my beauty but had enough wisdom to know it was only fleeting.

My parents adored me and made sure I was educated—highly educated. I lived a rarefied and precious existence, in which I arranged flowers, looked pretty, and sang for my parents’ entertainment. I was so privileged that even my maid had bound feet. As a small girl, I believed that all the gatherings we held and all the treats we ate during Double Seven were a celebration for me. No one corrected my mistake, because I was loved and very, very spoiled. I took a breath and let it out slowly—happy. This would be my last birthday at home before I married out, and I was going to enjoy every minute.

I left my room in the Unmarried Girls’ Hall and headed in the direction of our ancestral hall to make offerings to my grandmother. I’d spent so much time getting ready that I made a quick obeisance. I didn’t want to be late for breakfast. My feet couldn’t take me as fast as I wanted to go, but when I saw my parents sitting together in a pavilion overlooking the garden, I slowed. If Mama was late, I could be late too.

“Unmarried girls should not be seen in public,” I heard my mother say. “I’m even concerned for my sisters-in-law. You know I don’t encourage private excursions. Now to bring outsiders in for this performance . . .”

She let her voice trail off. I should have hurried on, but the opera meant so much to me that I stayed, lingering out of sight behind the twisted trunks of a wisteria vine.

“There is no public here,” Baba said. “This will not be some open affair where women disgrace themselves by sitting among men. You will be hidden behind screens.”

“But outside men will be within our walls. They may see our stockings and shoes beneath the screen. They may smell our hair and powder. And of all the operas, you have chosen one about a love affair that no unmarried girl should hear!”

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.

“Yes, on your wedding day,” she responded, smiling fondly as she always did when I asked a stupid question.

I waited as patiently as I could, knowing that palanquins were now being brought over our main threshold and into the Sitting-Down Hall, where our visitors would get out and drink tea before entering the main part of the compound. From there, the men would go to the Hall of Abundant Elegance, where my father would receive them. The women would come to our quarters, which lay at the back of the compound, protected from the eyes of all men.

Eventually, I heard the lilting voices of women as they neared. When my mother’s two sisters and their daughters arrived, I reminded myself to be modest in appearance, behavior, and movement. A couple of my aunts’ sisters came next, followed by several of my father’s friends’ wives. The most important of these was Madame Tan, the wife of the man my father had mentioned in his argument with my mother. (The Manchus had recently given her husband a high appointment as Commissioner of Imperial Rites.) She was tall and very thin. Her young daughter, Tan Ze, looked around eagerly. A wave of jealousy washed over me. I had never been outside the Chen Family Villa. Did Commissioner Tan let his daughter pass through their family’s front gate very often?

Kisses. Hugs. The exchange of gifts of fresh figs, jars of Shaoxing rice wine, and tea made from jasmine flowers. Showing the women and their daughters to their rooms. Unpacking. Changing from traveling costumes to fresh gowns. More kisses. More hugs. A few tears and lots of laughter. Then we moved to the Lotus-Blooming Hall, our main women’s gathering place, where the ceiling was high, shaped like a fish tail, and supported by round posts painted black. Windows and carved doors looked out into a private garden on one side and a pond filled with lotus on the other. On an altar table in the center of the room stood a small screen and a vase. When spoken together, the words for screen and vase sounded like safe, and we women and girls all felt safe here in the hall as we took chairs.

Once settled, my bound feet just barely floating on the surface of the cool stone floor, I looked around the room. I was glad I’d taken such care with my appearance, because the other women and girls were dressed in their finest gauze silk, embroidered with patterns of seasonal flowers. As I compared myself to the others, I had to admit that my cousin Lotus looked exceptionally beautiful, but then she always did. Truthfully, we all sparkled in anticipation of the festivities that were about to descend on our home. Even my chubby cousin Broom looked more pleasing than usual.

The servants set out little dishes of sweetmeats, and then my mother announced an embroidery contest, the first of several activities she’d planned for these three days. We laid our embroidery projects on a table and my mother examined them, looking for the most intricate designs and skillful stitches. When she came to the piece I’d made, she spoke with the honesty of her position.

“My daughter’s needlework improves. See how she tried to embroider chrysanthemums?” She paused. “They are chrysanthemums, aren’t they?” When I nodded, she said, “You’ve done well.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead, but anyone could see I would not win the embroidery contest, on this day or ever.

By late afternoon—between the tea, the contests, and our anticipation about tonight—we were all fidgety. Mama’s eyes swept through the room, taking in the wiggling little girls, the darting eyes of their mothers, Fourth Aunt’s swinging foot, and pudgy Broom pulling repeatedly at her tight collar. I clasped my hands together in my lap and sat as still as possible when Mama’s eyes found me, but inside I wanted to jump up, wave my arms, and scream my exhilaration.

Mama cleared her throat. A few women looked in her direction, but otherwise the tittering agitation continued. She cleared her throat again, tapped her fingernail on a table, and began to speak in a melodious voice. “One day the Kitchen God’s seven daughters were bathing in a pond when a Cowherd and his water buffalo came upon them.”

At the recognition of the opening lines to every girl and woman’s favorite story, quiet fell over the room. I nodded at my mother, acknowledging how clever she was to use this story to relax us, and we listened to her recount how the impudent Cowherd stole the clothes of the loveliest daughter, the Weaving Maid, leaving her to languish naked in the pond.

“As the chill of night settled in the forest,” Mama explained, “she had no choice but to go in nature’s full embarrassment to the Cowherd’s home to retrieve her clothes. The Weaving Maid knew she could save her reputation only one way. She decided to marry the Cowherd. What do you suppose happened next?”

“They fell in love,” Tan Ze, Madame Tan’s daughter, piped up in a shrill voice.

This was the unforeseen part of the story, since no one expected an immortal to love an ordinary man when even here in the mortal world husbands and wives in arranged marriages often did not find love.

“They had many children,” Ze went on. “Everyone was happy.”

“Until?” my mother asked, this time looking for a response from another girl.

“Until the gods and goddesses grew weary,” Ze answered again, ignoring my mother’s obvious wishes. “They missed the girl who spun cloud silk into cloth for their clothes and wanted her back.”

My mother frowned. This Tan Ze had forgotten herself entirely! I guessed her to be about nine years old. I glanced at her feet, remembering that she’d walked in unassisted today. Her two-year footbinding was behind her. Maybe her enthusiasm had to do with being able to walk again. But her manners!

“Go on,” Ze said. “Tell us more!”

Mama winced and then continued as though yet another breach of

the Four Virtues had not occurred. “The Queen of Heaven brought the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd back to the celestial skies, and then she took a hairpin and drew the Milky Way to separate them. In this way,

the Weaving Maid would not be diverted from her work, and the Queen of Heaven would be beautifully robed. On Double Seven, the goddess allows all the magpies on earth to form a celestial bridge with their wings so the two lovers can meet. Three nights from now, if you girls are still awake between the hours of midnight and dawn and find yourselves sitting beneath a grape arbor under the quarter moon, you will hear the lovers weep at their parting.”

It was a romantic thought—and it coated us in warm feelings—but none of us would be alone under a grape arbor at that time of night, even if we were within the safety of this compound. And at least for me, it did little to still my quivering excitement about The Peony Pavilion. How much longer would I have to wait?

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Reading Group Guide

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 heard? Do you think women today are really heard for who they are? In what ways have you tried to be heard?

6. What are the parallels between the lovesick maidens and girls with anorexia nervosa today?

7. We see a difference in Peony’s actions after Ze marries Ren and again after Ze dies. Do you see redemption here for Peony?

8. Could you sympathize with Peony’s actions in the years immediately following her death? Which of the three wives do you sympathize with the most, and why?

9. What are the differences and similarities between the Chinese afterworld and western concepts of heaven and hell? Which seem better? Which would you prefer — for yourself and for your loved ones?

10. How does what happened during the Cataclysm change depending on who’s telling the story?

11. How do Peony’s experiences as a living girl and then as a hungry ghost parallel Liniang’s experiences in “The Peony Pavilion”?

12. In what ways do you feel Peony’s eyes were opened to the reality of her father’s real character?

13. Compare the actions of Peony’s mother and grandmother after they meet in death with their actions when they were alive.

14. Peony in Love shows the strength of women and women’s companionship, but in what ways does it also show the dark shadow side of women whether in the women’s chambers, between a mother and daughter, between wives, or even between friends?

15. The novel looks at the Chinese veneration of ancestors as well as the desire to have sons. How are these two beliefs connected?

16. Lisa has written before about footbinding. What’s the importance of footbinding in this novel? What does Peony learn about life and love through her experiences of footbinding? What do you think caused the change in Peony’s ability to assist in footbinding?

17. What role does the plum tree play in the opera of “The Peony Pavilion” and in Peony in Love?

18. How are jealousy and envy addressed in the novel?

19. Were you surprised to hear about the women writers in China in the 17th century? Do you think it’s important that we know about them today?

20. Compare the roles of women in China in the 1600s to the roles of women in the United States in the same period.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 225 )
Rating Distribution

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(98)

4 Star

(60)

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(31)

2 Star

(24)

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(12)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 225 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    With too much intelligent history to be pegged a romance, Peony in Love is, indeed, romantic. It is a tale of love and death in 17th century China - a time of Cataclysm and a place where, pound for pound, salt was more valuable than women. Painting her words on a ghostly dreamscape, See once again explores themes of love, language and the strength of women amidst a revealing and sometimes disturbing history................ Already promised in marriage, young Peony Chen falls in love under the spell of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavillion. Fated to follow in the footsteps of the opera's heroine, Peony dies of lovesickness soon thereafter. It is only after she dies and her tortured soul waits to be dispersed in the proper way that she learns her beloved and her betrothed were one in the same. Now a hungry ghost, Peony hopes to be reconciled with Wu Ren just as her opera heroine was reunited with her own true love............. But Peony confronts many obstacles, the least of which is the unfinished state of her written critical commentary on The Peony Pavillion. Although abundant in number and talent, China's earliest female writers were often published posthumously and anonymously. Yet, working between the worlds of life and death, Peony manages to have her work published and, more important, her words recognized by Wu Ren................ What kind of reconciliation can Peony possibly expect when so many ancient rules were broken, so many rituals left unperformed? How can a ghost-wife love a husband who loves someone else? See's rich writing style will keep you turning pages for answers. Drawing from resources including Tang Xianzu's opera The Peony Pavillion 'first published in 1598', Wu Wushan's Three Wives' Collaborative Commentary on The Peony Pavillion, Jingmei Chen's dissertation The Dream World of Love-Sick Maidens, a plethora of scholarly research and personal interviews See weaves a haunting blend of history and love.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2007

    This book will haunt your soul - wonderful!

    This is my first book by Lisa See, but it will definitely not be my last! Although there is certainly a point in the book that is so heartbreaking I almost stopped reading it, I'm so glad I continued on this journey with Peony. What a wonderful, incredible book on women, men, love, passion, mothers, daughters, and the golden threads of words that bind our souls together forever. Take your time reading this book - it is a complex, beautiful tapestry that deserves your time and attention.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2007

    A great story

    I was concerned that this book would be too complicated since I didn't know much about the Chinese culture and traditions but it wasn't a problem. Lisa See tells an amazing story and is very knowledgeable herself. As already stated, this isn't a fast read. I took my time and paid attention to the names and the descriptions. I was rewarded with an inspiring story about Peony and her family and how she learns and grows even in the afterworld. This was my first book by this author but I will be reading more of hers now.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2007

    Great read--for the right people

    I just finished reading this novel, and I cannot seem to let her 'Peony' go. Such a beautifu, haunting story, all the more so knowing that the three wives did exist. While See has invented their biography here, she's done it in such a way that even the most supernatural elements seem to be their truths. In reading the novel, I can see where some impatient readers might not like it--if you're looking for a quick and airy summer read, don't go for this book--it is not meant to be read as such. It is meant to be reflected upon and savored. The themes within it are many, and are deep--they will not leave once you have closed the book for the last time. I myself became a little frustrated right around the time Peony died in the book--I stopped reading, because I didn't want her to die so unfulfilled! But I was so wrong in this, and once I resumed my reading, I could barely put the book down, let alone stop thinking about it. This work is a wonderful blessing, about a world that most of us, sadly, know little about.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2008

    Surprising dissapointment

    Earlier I had read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, which I loved. This prompted me to buy Peony in Love. What an unexpected dissapointment...I wonder are the authors other books as wonderful at Snow Flower.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Boring

    I have enjoyed all of Lisa See's other books so got this one. What a disappointment. I couldn't even finish it.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2010

    Boring and overly fantasized

    I really thought this would be an interesting story from the background and other reviews. However, I found it relatively boring, childish and too sweet for my tastes. If you like the unrealistic romances spiritual and otherwise this book is for you.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2008

    simply irresistible

    i remember not being able to put the book down once i caught a hold of it...a truly powerful novel held through the eye of a 16 years old woman up in heaven

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2008

    A reviewer

    This was the second book I read by Lisa See and it was just as good as I hoped it to be! I love how she told the story from a unique point of view.....

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2008

    Unbelievable!

    Peony In Love was by far the most enjoyable book I have ever read. It takes a great look at China's society and reveals women's desire to be heard. The book mixes undying love with suspense, revenge, joy, and heartbreak. The book kept me on my toes, and as I became emotionally involved, I began to relate to the characters very easily. Reading Peony In Love was extremely full filing and I will never forget it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2012

    AP World History: Illuminating

    Peony in Love tells the story of The Three Wives and how their lives have become interconnected all because of one play, The Peony Pavilion. Lisa See weaves an intricate story of love, life, death, and a harrowing history into the life of Peony. By doing so, See makes the book very revealing of Chinese society during this time period. The reader learns about the day-to-day lives of Chinese women, marital customs, burial rites, and the traumatic Yangzhou massacre. While reading about Peony's tragic life, the reader also learns about the history and culture of China. Lisa See does a wonderful job telling the story of Peony while weaving a story of love, life, and death. From the first page, I was entranced by Peony in Love and the story it tells. I learned more from this book than I did from the lesson on the Manchu conquest in class because Peony in Love vividly describes how the Manchus affected the lives of regular people, not just the government officials and the elite. Lisa See provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Chinese women and as a result captures the reader immediately. I would recommend this book to anybody interested in learning more about the lives of women in China during the Manchu Empire.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2008

    Amazed

    I loved this book b/c it is so rich in the Chinese culture and Lisa See does a wonderful job in explaining certain traditions and sticking to the facts. Although some parts were extremely depressing, I couldn't put down the book without wondering what will happen in the end. In some aspects I was so touched by the main character (Peony) that I started picking up on her emotions and feeling them myself. Through the experiences I've gone through in life and the beautifully crafted story of Peony, I've gained lots of insight about dreams, love, and death after reading See's book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by the Chinese culture.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2014

    &Delta CAMP PEONY RULES &Delta

    1.) To join chat, you must have a bio. And to have a bio, you need a godly parent. (Check res 3 out for bio info) <p> 2.) Drama always happens, we do not care about it. If you do, ignore it or get out. <br> 3.) You do not have to have proper grammar, perfect spelling, or capitalization. But it would be nice to, so people can understand you. <br> 4.) If you lose a game, or die in a game, we will heal you. So, no throwing fits. <br> 5.) We wants as many people to join as possible. So please do not dis-obey very important rules or you will be kicked out. ~sunglow

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2014

    It was just "ok"

    I almost stopped reading it cause it was getting stupid, but I figured I only had another hundred pages to read, so I decided to finish it. The book in general was good. However, I don't think I'll be reading any more of Lisa See's books.. they are just not for me =( it may be because I dont understand the Chinese culture, but sometimes the book gets confusing and what not.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2014

    Peony in Love recounts the tale of a young girl named Peony who

    Peony in Love recounts the tale of a young girl named Peony who is hopelessly in love with a stranger, and overcome with grief when she realizes she will soon be married off to another stranger. She meets this man at a play, even though unmarried women shouldn’t have contact with men not in their family. She begins to read the Peony Pavilion and she feels the pain of the protagonist and notices parallels between there situations. She begins to absorb herself in the pages of the play, and it ultimately lead to her untimely demise.  In this eloquently written novel, we see Peony transform from a young girl to an insightful woman, learning all the necessities, and eventually teaching them, to being a paragon of Chinese wife. 
    Overall I was very impressed with Peony in Love. Lisa See did a phenomenal job of bringing each character to life, and I found myself rejoicing in their times of triumph and feeling great trepidation in their times of apprehension.  I enjoyed seeing Peony grow not only in age but from a girl to a woman, despite the fact that she was dead. See does a wonderful job of shedding insight into the Chinese culture and social structure.  Her words painted vivid images in my head, and it helped me to really connect to the book.  It was even more interesting to learn that the characters Chen Tong, Tan Ze, and Qian Yi were actual people, and many of the occurrences in the novel held truth. Peony in love is beautiful and haunting novel and I greatly recommend it to all.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2013

    Not what I expected

    This book was not what I was expecting at all. Its more of a folktale than historical fiction. I did end up liking the last third of the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2013

    Tragic love story

    Love to learn about different cultures this way

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2013

    Leaders den

    Yup!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 23, 2013

    Love her books and this was no exception.

    Love her books and this was no exception.

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  • Posted February 19, 2013

    AP world history review: description and opinion on Peony in lov

    AP world history review: description and opinion on Peony in love

    Peony in love left a good impression on me. The book is truly is truly inspiring to any women from any century. Through Peony's perseverance I am able to feel her own tragedy and loss surge through my veins. The book is very well written and illustrates everything in detail. As I was reading the book I can to realize that truly at some points it is not very appropriate for younger children. I highly recommend it though for teens and up, preferably women. I make this recommendation because throughout the book a women will come to appreciate what past women have done. Even though Peony simply writes poems is not everything. Those poems that she writes links every women through the love story &quot;Peony's pavilion&quot; literally.

    The author's (Lisa See) purpose is completed by relating to every women who reads the story of Peony. See takes the three wives and makes them become one through the sharing of their notes in the volumes of &quot;Peony's Pavilion&quot;. Also See connects to many women by posing scenarios in which women are made lower than men. This was a big complication back when Peony lives, yet this still is a problem today so it can relate to the women of this day. Problems used to include not being able to be published or acknowledged, but now the problem seems to be not being treated (payed) the same way in the professional field, these two things as you can see relate to each other. And again I reiterate that this book is not for the very young eye. I would set an age range of fifteen and up , since this is the age that our Peony starts her tale. All women should find this novel enlightening and engaging ! I strongly recommend it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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