Thursday, April 23, 2009

Peony in Love by Lisa See

Lisa See’s books have such lovely covers! And her titles: Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Don’t they sound delightful? I think I have been avoiding them for these very reasons; I suspected they might not measure up to their marketing. And it’s true that Peony in Love was not what I expected, but in a good way.

The plot of Peony in Love is difficult to describe, but I will try (sorry, some spoilers ahead, and plot sticklers who have already read this may notice that I am simplifying). Set in 17th century China, it tells the story of Peony, a sheltered upper class girl who, as the book begins, is getting ready to enter into an arranged marriage. But Peony rebels against her strict upbringing; she wishes to be a writer, not just a wife, and she wishes to marry a man she loves, not one chosen for her by her parents. She embarks on a secret writing project that consumes all her time and energy, much to the dismay of her mother and her aunts. So far, this is predictable enough, yes? But the book takes an unexpected turn when Peony chooses the ultimate escape by starving herself to death. She spends the rest of the book as a ghost, haunting Wu Ren, the man who would have been her husband and Tan Ze and Qian Ye, his two future wives. With her new ghostly powers, Peony forces Tan Ze and Qian Ye to do her writing for her, and together the three women produce a work called The Three Wives Commentary.

As a ghost Peony has freedom that she never had in life. Able to zoom around wherever she wants, she discovers that 17th century China is full of women writers. Lisa See allows Peony to encounter women poets and essayists who really existed, nicely placing Peony in the midst of a lot of historical action. The Three Wives Commentary is a real book, and Peony, her intended husband Wu Ren, and his two wives Tan Ze and Qian Ye all really existed. (All this is revealed in the extensive author notes at the end of the book.)

Here is a question. It’s common for authors to write about historical events from the vantage point of fictional characters, or even to make up fictional stories about real historical characters. But it really takes a lot of nerve to take a real character and turn her into a ghost! Is Lisa See brave and creative, or just nutty? You have to admit that it’s kind of odd to tell such a serious story about poetry, feminism, history, love, footbinding, and religion through the voice of a ghost. But I think it works.

(Book 15, 2009)


Nora said...

Maybe she's all those things... but what an interesting premise. Is it any stranger than writing from the perspective of Death?

Becky Holmes said...

Nora, right, what about the character Death himself, from The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak?

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