Tuesday, January 1, 2008

lisa see/PEONY IN LOVE

i received this book for my birthday back in august and was too afraid to read it. mainly because i was writing in a somewhat similar genre, and feared any similarities or brilliant writing would discourge me. =p well, i finally picked up the book to read in december and had a really difficult time getting into the tale. i thought snow flower and the secret fan bordered on okay good as a novel. peony is a more fantastic story.

the book centers around the play the peony pavilion, a story that caused stir among the chinese of that period because the herione actually chose her own fate in life as well as in love. the play is a favorite of the heroine's, also named peony. her father stages the play and allows her to view it from above behind a screen for her sixteenth birthday.

during the play, peony glimpses a handsome young man sitting below in the audience, and the two meet outside when peony steps out to get some air. the young man and she discuss the play. he is interested in a young woman's thoughts on the story, and urges her to meet with him in secret again. breaking all rules of decorum, peony does so, twice. alas, her father announces she is betrothed on the last day of the performance, and peony, believing herself to be in love with the stranger she had met, refuses to look through the screen at her future groom.

her mother, strict and abiding by tradition, suspects peony's transgression and locks her in her room. peony rebells by making commentary on the peony pavilion play, while refusing to eat and wasting away. when she finally learns her betrothed is in fact, the young man she had secretly met in the gardens of their estate, it is to late. she is too weakened from lack of food, and dies.

i found it really difficult to read through the first part of this novel for several reasons :

1. many times, it seems like see is trying to lecture us on the peony pavilion play as well as chinese traditions. every paragraph seems to be an explanation of some ritual or meaning. i understand that readers may read this book to immerse themselves in the culture, but i found it rather heavy-handed in parts.

2. i knew the twist was peony would die and spend the second half of the novel as a ghost in the mortal realm. i don't particularly enjoy reading about heroine's who kill themselves, whether it be intentional or not, and found the "waiting for her to croak it" unappleaing as i read to that inevitable end.

3. peony was not sympathetic to me. maybe i'm too modern, but the whole not eating love-sickness thing annoyed me on a certain level.

wow. am i being harsh?

on the upside, after our heroine kicks the bucket, i found the story easier to read and more enjoyable. i did find her state as a "hungry ghost" interesting and her escapdes and intrusions in the mortal realm, as she hangs around her almost groom's home.

my biggest complaint would be that the reason peony remained trapped in the mortal realm (her spirit tablet remained undotted) seemed a flimsy plot point to me, as she was able to manipulate the mortal's thoughts and movements around her, she couldn't get her tablet dotted? the ending was also a bit...anti-climactic. overall, i would recommend the book if you are interested in a tale that is more fantastic than snow flower, steeped in the traditions of china from the 17th century centered around the peony pavilion play. the book does address a woman's place in society of that time, and the challenges imposd upon them due to changing expectations.


moonrat said...

hmm. lisa see is so popular in a genre i purport to edit/know about, and yet i've managed to never read anything by her (mainly because i've heard mixed/mediocre things about her books). i still feel like i should probably give this a try, just to know what's getting published...

cyn said...

MR, i felt the same way. i began reading things like snowflower and empress orchid to get a sense of what is out there. altho my book is really truly fantasy, i still base the world on ancient china and some of its traditions.

honestly, i can't say her works have wowed me. i did enjoy the latter half of this book more so than snow flower. that book was overly tragic for me--which i just don't like--even if that is chinese in many ways.

i also wonder if i am harsher in my review of see as a chinese-american writer? do i expect more? not sure.

Josephine Damian said...

No, Cyn, you're not being harsh, you applied Writing 101 rules (specifically "Never bore" which, based on your comments, is what the author did in the beginning. (I haven't read "Peony", though planned to - not sany more - I do love that cover!).

Everyone should read the writing advice book "Making A Literary Life" by Lisa See's mother instead.