The actual opera, The Peony Pavilion, tells the story of a young girl who dies for her dreams of love, only to be brought back to life by her dream lover who falls in love with her painted image and spirit. Almost seventy years after the opera was written, Peony, a well-educated girl from a wealthy family, has read and collected numerous manuscripts of The Peony Pavilion. By her sixteenth birthday, she is quite obsessed with the idea of love and chaffs at the thought of an arranged marriage. When her father stages a production of the opera at their family compound, Peony is smitten not only with the beauty and imagery of the story, but also with a handsome young man that she meets first by accident and twice more in secret, against all expectations of propriety. In the following weeks and months, Peony's life begins to mirror that of the opera's heroine as she becomes a lovesick maiden, refusing to eat and spending what little strength she has in writing poetry and comments in the margins of The Peony Pavilion. Tragically, Peony dies just days before her marriage, when her dreams of love might really have been fulfilled, and the reader is transported to the mysterious world of the Chinese afterlife. As a ghost, Peony learns more about her family history and her husband's ongoing life. She learns more about herself and human nature as she tries to reconcile her own difficulties and help those she loves.
Like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (click title to read my review), Peony in Love depicts the life of a woman in ancient China, and through her story, we learn many details about the history and culture of this ancient land. The two novels are very different in content, but actually quite similar in theme. One chronicles a very long life, while the other deals mainly with the afterlife. But both stories recount the heroine's quest for true love, the intricacies of family relationships, the unfortunate consequences of misinformation and misunderstandings, and above all a woman's need to be heard. In each novel, words, particularly the written word, hold the key to a woman's freedom within the constraints of a very traditional and regimented society.
I thought Snow Flower excelled in character development, while Peony had more satisfying closures to the various threads of the story. But I would be hard pressed to choose which novel I enjoyed more - both were fascinating, insightful, and rich in historical detail, each in unique ways.
Every mother is afraid for her daughter, but I was terrified. I could only think of all the terrible things that could happen. But what's the worst thing that could happen? . . .The worst thing was losing you. But look what you've done these past years. Look at what your love for Wu Ren has caused to flower in you. . .Your grandmother and I, and so many other women, had wanted to be heard. We went out and it started to happen for us. Then the only time I was really heard - the poem on the wall - I wanted to die. But you're different. In death, you've grown to be an admirable woman. And then there's your project. (241)
I am impressed with Lisa See's ability to transport the reader to another time and place and incorporate so many historical details in a compelling and personal narrative. I look forward to reading her next historical novel about Chinese women, Shanghai Girls, and her family memoir, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, looks interesting, as well.