Peony in Love is an example of awe-inspiring yet utterly readable historical fiction/mythology. It is based in 16-17th century China just after the downfall of the Ming dynasty after their defeat by the Manchu invaders.
On the face of it, Peony in Love is about the 16 year old heroine Peony who falls in love with a stranger at a rendition of the popular opera The Peony Pavilion. She is already betrothed to marry a total stranger, and in despair, she stops eating and dies before her wedding, little knowing that the man she is supposed to marry is the stranger she fell in love with. After her death, she becomes a “hungry ghost” and watches over her future husband’s life and tries to make him happy in any way she can. She is also a great writer who longs to have her commentary on the Peony Pavilion written during her short life span published, so that her husband can finally hear her voice through her written words. The rest of the story deals with how she manages to achieve her ends.
I loved how Lisa See has wrapped the story into the actual historical events of the time. Peony in Love is a work of fiction, but Peony herself and some of the other characters in the novel are real. The story sticks as close as possible to the actual historical events of that time.
The actual love story was a little bit blah. Probably, I am too modern in my thoughts and approach, but I just couldn’t get into Peony’s emotions. She falls in love with a total stranger, they recite bits and pieces of poetry to each other, and based on this flimsy relationship (they meet just thrice), Peony stops eating, becomes obsessed with thoughts of her man, and dies! Something I just could not swallow, but then I am not a 16-year old who’s never seen a strange man before 🙂
What I loved in this book is something much more than the love story. Lisa See delivers great historical depth to Peony in Love. Her research is unbelievable. I learned so much about traditional Chinese practices such as arranged marriages, foot binding, architecture, familial structure, religious beliefs, dietary customs, and ancient medicinal treatments. Her descriptions of the Manchu invasion and the massacre in Yangzhou were really heart-breaking to read.
All in all, a highly recommended read!