Sunday, July 29, 2007

a hungry ghost

“All things not at peace will cry out.”

~Han Yun

As i was making my way through the first section of Peony in Love, i was beginning to think i should have paid more heed to the valentine heart on its spine (my library system's way of signifying that it was of the romance genre) because Peony was mooning like a lovesick girl who knew not enough of the world and it was all just a little overmuch for me.

But then she died, and it got so much better. I had rather eagerly anticipated this novel, because i had loved Lisa See's last, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Set shortly after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in seventeenth century China and based on real historic characters and works of literature, Peony in Love is an involving tale of an often unknown period of women writers.

Soon to celebrate her sixteenth birthday (on the the rather auspicious Double Seven~the seventh day of the seventh month~for which her father has commissioned a very special performance of the opera The Peony Pavilion, her very favorite~and scandalously enough women will be allowed to watch, though from behind a screen.) Peony is also about to embark on young womanhood, is betrothed to a man she has not met (as Chinese tradition of the day dictated) and will soon be marrying out. On the first night of the three-night opera she leaves to take some air and meets a young poet who reminds her of the hero of the opera. It is, but of course, love at first sight. Peony is destined to pine away for her young poet and die of love-sickness before she can be married as have so many young girls before her~victims just like the heroine the idolize in the The Peony Pavilion.

It is only after death that Peony can begin to see the world and her family for what they really are, even though these perceptions go through a couple of changes even then. She continues her growth process even after death. After death she learns of the relationships her family members had with each other, as well as changing her views about the relationships she had with them. She develops a relationship with the grandmother she has always worshiped and respected as an ancestor and learns to see her as a real woman. Peony grows into a woman who makes mistakes and longs to be heard (a problem of many women as they moved from the slightly more liberal Ming dynasty to the more repressive Manchus, even more so for Peony facing the challenges of being a ghost), she also grows to truly love her husband in death and learns to recognize the difference between that and what she felt as a young girl. Though many of the elements of this tale i could see coming i still enjoyed the process of reading about them (and isn't that what it's all about anyway~and there really aren't any new tales to tell~isn't that part of the point?)

See does a beautiful job of depicting the turmoil of the teenage heart, as well as the problems faced with growing older and facing our mistakes, though she did it in a novel way. She also illuminated a Chinese belief system that i knew nothing about. I deeply enjoyed this novel and gained an even greater appreciation for See's artistry. It made me want to learn more about The Three Wives Commentary, the original inspiration for this novel, which was the "first book of its kind to been published anywhere in the world to have been written by women" (the three consecutive wives of Wu Ren) as well as bringing back memories of the wonderful but haunting Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by the incomparable Maxine Hong Kingston.

No comments: