“Ghosts, like women, are creatures of yin – cold, dark, earthy, and feminine.”
I’d never read Lisa See before, but a friend consistently sings her praises. When I saw Peony in Love (Random House, 2007), I snatched it up, and it’s sat patiently in my TBR pile for ages. Until now.
I knew nothing about the plot when I carefully slipped the dust jacket off and opened to the first page. Absolutely nothing. It’s fun to go into a book completely blind. There’s a trust there.
The novel opens with Peony, just two days shy of 16, bubbling with youth, beauty, and excitement. Her father is staging a production of The Peony Pavilion, Peony’s most favorite of operas. The girls and women will watch the 3-night-long production from behind a screen. Peony could think of no better birthday present. While women aren’t typically allowed to see operas, she has collected eleven of the thirteen printed versions, and she reads them with the mind of a scholar and the heart of poet.
Privileged Peony has lived a life of luxury and loneliness, kept inside the walls of her family’s villa. She longs to take a riverboat, to make friends, to have adventures, and to fall in love. But she’s a “proper” girl and is soon to be married to man she’s never met. She’s been betrothed to him since she was a baby, and she has no say in the matter. What is done is done. And girls must be good daughters and then good wives. It’s the way the world works.
But Peony, with her poet’s heart, is a bit of a dreamer. She wants to fall madly and passionately in love, like Liniang in her beloved opera. Each night of the opera, Peony meets up with a handsome stranger. They discuss the opera as equals. Peony’s body ripples with delight – she’s being naughty meeting this man alone and in secret, but this stranger has stirred something deep inside her. Passion. Lovelust. They never touch, but oh how she wants him.
And so, life begins to imitate art and Peony becomes Liniang. She is diagnosed as being “lovesick” and spends her days locked away, scribbling away in the margins of a new version of her beloved opera – sent by her soon-to-be sister-in-law. She refuses to eat. The doctor tells her mother that anger will cure her, so her mother burns the books – all but one volume of the opera, which had been hidden. Peony learns her betrothed is the man from the gardens, but this knowledge comes too late. Like Liniang, Peony becomes a ghost. In her opera, Liniang’s lover brings her back to life. Peony wants Ren to do the same. But he can’t.
And this thus becomes a ghost story. Like Liniang, Peony finds herself stuck in the afterlife as her ancestral tablet was not dotted. She watches those she loves for years. When Ren takes a new wife, she is curious, but she becomes furious when she sees he has been matched with the spoiled and hateful Tan Ze. She learns the power she can have on the living, and she makes herself at home in their walls and in their bed. She is, after all, Ren’s first wife even if she’d died before the official marriage. She enters Tan Ze’s body during the “clouds and rain” times, bringing Ren much pleasure despite her host’s objections. She further controls Tan Ze, forcing her to read the opera, forcing her hand to write commentary that was mostly Peony’s thoughts. Peony thought if Ren saw it, he would know. He eventually does see it, but he doesn’t understand. He is given credit for the scholarly work – no one believes two women could have been so thoughtful or intelligent with it. Peony continues her control over Tan Ze until there is nothing left of the head-strung, spoiled girl. She dies in childbirth, the son she’d never wanted along with her. As she’d died during childbirth, her soul is cast away to the Blood-Gathering Lake where she will be tortured for her failures as a wife and mother.
Realizing what she’s done, Peony knows she must atone. She sets her sights on Qian Yi, a young girl who should have been born into wealth and privilege, but the Cataclysm had changed her destiny. Peony decides her feet should be bound. Foot-binding was an act of resistance against the Manchus, and the act would place the child in a class above the rest of the family. She protects the child, teaches the child to read – molding her into the perfect third wife for her beloved Ren.
This time, she protects the family. She doesn’t drive Yi mad and she doesn’t enter the girl’s body during sex. But she does whisper in the girl’s ear about the opera. And so Ren’s third wife also becomes obsessed with the text, writing her commentary. But Yi is not controlled – she writes in her own hand and even signs her name to her own thoughts. She convinces Ren that she should be allowed to publish the work, giving voice to Ren’s three wives.
Steeped in the tradition and history of mid-seventeenth century China, Peony in Love addresses the role of women as poets as well as the common condition of “lovesick maidens” thought to have been made sick by writing and literature. The women, Ren’s three wives, were real. Their commentary of the opera was real. The government’s disdain and official ban of the opera was real. Solidly based in fact, this novel soars as historical fiction. But it’s the ghost story and the treatment of the dead that gives it wings.