In 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. China reeled from this reorganization for nearly 30 years – women especially were impacted. This was a time in history defined by the “lovesick” maidens and the publication of thousands of poems and writings by women.
Lisa See has set her latest novel – Peony in Love– during this tumultuous time in China’s history. Peony, a sixteen year old girl, is preparing to “marry out.”. As tradition demands, she is not allowed to meet the man who will become her husband. Peony dreams of the ideal husband, and wishes for true love. She becomes enraptured by The Peony Pavilion, an opera which speaks of the deep emotions and sentimental love called qing. It is interesting to note that this opera actually existed and was ultimately banned in China for its political and lascivious leanings. As the story unfolds, the reader travels with Peony through an exotic time and place as she discovers the true meaning of love, and unravels the mystery of the afterworld. Touching on subjects as vast as “mother love” and women’s rights, See creates a lyrical novel which provides insight into a culture filled with symbolism, tradition, and superstition.
At times, See becomes heavy handed with her characters imbuing them with emotion and importance which felt sappy and unreal. See spins a tale which forces the reader to suspend belief and simply float along with the story. The ending was a bit too predictable and the conflict sewn up too neatly.
In comparison to her blockbuster novel – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – See has fallen short of a masterpiece.
Despite these flaws, Peony in Love is an solid and enjoyable novel which informs the reader of the intricacies of Chinese history during the Qing Dynasty when women, for the first time, were allowed to experience the joy of writing and having their works published.
They had formed a sisterhood of friendship and writing, and then they built an intellectual and emotional community of women throughout the country through reading. In looking for solace, dignity, and recognition, they brought their quest to other women who still lived behind locked gates or were being pushed back inside by the Manchus. -From Peony in Love, page 206-