Peony is a young girl growing up in China in the 17th century. She is the only child of a wealthy man, who is staging a showing of the popular play “The Peony Pavilion” as the book opens. Peony is almost bordering on obsessed when it comes to “The Peony Pavilion” and eagerly awaits the performance. However, during the first night of the performance, she slips away and meets a young man whom she instantly falls in love with. This is problematic, given that Peony is already betrothed to another man. She becomes disconsolate at the thought that she will not be able to be with her true love.
Meanwhile, the reader is given a lesson on love through “The Peony Pavilion”. It is the story of a young girl who dies of lovesickness after she is unable to be with the man she loves. She becomes so overcome by the physical absence of the man she loves that she stops eating and eventually dies. Such is the same with Peony.
Up until this point of the story, I was becoming bored. Ok, we have a lovesick girl. Big deal. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was much better. But then Peony dies. The rest of the book is written from her perspective in the afterlife. For whatever reason, this premise fascinates me. So from that point on, I was completely hooked.
Peony in Love is a great tragic love story. The emotions See evokes are so palpable. Almost every page was seeping with emotion. One portion that really stuck with me and is indicative of the whole book:
“It’s true that life’s tendency to imitate art is not always a comfort,” my father admitted, “but the boy is right. My daughter could not live without words and emotion. And you, Commissioner, don’t you sometimes wish you could visit the women’s chambers and experience the true depth of qing?
The whole idea of is it better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all? Peony died of lovesickness, but in the end, she still got to know what true love felt like. So although she died at sixteen, she lived more than some people ever will. And that is what her father is trying to point out in the above passage.
If you are a fan of Lisa See, this book is a must read for you. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan won rave reviews for me, but I think Peony in Love tops it. I hope to be reading Shanghai Girls soon!