Peony in Love

Written by Lisa See
Review by Viviane Crystal

Enter the enticing world of the Peony Pavilion, a 16th-century Chinese opera now entwining the lives of three Hangzhou women over a hundred years later. Peony is a sheltered, obedient girl whose father invites family and friends to a special dramatic presentation of this famous piece. There Peony, who knows the opera by heart, secretly sees and later meets one man her father has invited. For three days Wu Ren and Peony share their deep love for the story of ideal love epitomized in the opera by Liu Meng-mei (Willow Dreaming Plum) and Tu Li-niang.

Obsessed with what she believes can never be true in an arranged marriage, Peony pines away, dies, and inadvertently becomes a “hungry ghost.” Intriguing irony follows as Peony in the afterlife guides first Tan Ze and much later Yi Qian in their marriage to Ren. The story of their rich relationships immerses the reader into stories of love affected by their complex personalities. As these characters learn about ideal love as portrayed in The Peony Pavilion, each undergoes a rich and vivacious metamorphosis.

Lisa See is an immensely talented writer who deftly intertwines Chinese history through the literary parallels of 16th and 17th century poets and dramatists, as woman poets begin literary circles for reading and discussion. This move toward independence from tradition, initially celebrated, was gradually perceived as dangerous by the new dynasty. Peony’s grandmother and mother eventually describe how they had earlier survived the devastating massacre of the invading Manchu army. But what they learned through that experience adds to the respect of their literary peers, for immortal creation arises from deep suffering and love for one’s family and friends.

The language of Peony in Love is exquisite and poetic in itself, conveying a magical, mysterious, powerful, beautiful, and unforgettable story.