Friday, November 28, 2008

A Quick Little Book Review

- spoiler alert -

PEONY IN LOVE, by Lisa See
8* out of 10*

The first hundred pages of this novel did not win me over. They seemed a bit wooden, predictable, sentimental. The information about 17c Chinese culture - the government, the role of women, the opera - those were all interesting enough, but the story seemed to simply be the sob story of a powerless, swooning, foolish girl who dies for the love she can't have, which ironically ends up being the love/marriage her parents had actually arranged for her. It felt so predictable and lame when that all came down that I remember smacking my borrowed paperback on the couch and physically sticking my finger down my throat as if to gag, and shooting accusing eye daggers at the red cover because the author had wasted my time.

Is that a strong enough reaction?

Oh, and along the way there'd been awkward sentences in clunky dialogue, which made me feel that the book had just been carelessly cranked out by the author and publisher because Lisa See's previous book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, had been such a smash hit. (Haven't read it.)

BUT I kept reading because readers I respect had liked this book. And, to my delight, the last 2/3 of the book indeed represented the author's creativity, smart cultural analysis and storytelling skills.

The rituals of the Chinese and their dead were so wonderfully conveyed through the point-of-view of Peony, a sixteen-year-old girl who'd died of that foolishness mentioned in my first paragraph. Caught in the after-world - one of its crazy layers, according to Chinese belief - Peony lives as a ghost where rituals have not been rightly performed and brutal consequences result for her unless she can change them.

So, that foolish girl she had been comes to understand the many depths and ways human beings can love. And, of course, woven in there is a deep (and cultural ?) lesson about women's strength and their rightful claim on the arts.

In the end, while I don't think the book is a perfect 10 in its execution - although I do think the first hundred pages had to set the stage for physical and emotional events to come (maybe only 75 were needed?) - I think the novel's overall depth and uniqueness and creativity earns it a solid 8.


Danigirl said...

Having spent 3 years in not-so-ancient China, I LOVED "Peony In Love" as much as "Snowflower and the Secret Fan."

The thing is, the best most loved stories throughout Chinese history have been rather sentimental and sappy. The perfect love stories are always about star-crossed lovers like Peony and her pavillion lover. The fact that he was actually her betrothed, and that she unwittingly starves herself to death pining for him, is perfect. Really.

I hung on every word.

"Snowflower and the Secret Fan" has much of the same tension and design, but it centers around the lifelong friendship of 'two sames' - girls whose souls are matched by a matchmaker, much like an arranged marriage.

You might love it, Anj. Or you might be just as frustrated with the sentimentality of it. Either way, it's worth reading.

I give both books a solid 9+.


Danigirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danigirl said...

Oh! If you're interested in reading an amazing book about China's not-so-ancient history, I highly recommend "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang.

This is a true accounting of three generations of Chinese women beginning in the early 1900's and extending through the Great Cultural Revolution - beginning with Chang's grandmother's birth and childhood during the final days of foot-binding.

I knew much of the history, but it filled in details and gave context to things I did not fully understand.

At 507 pages, it's a long read. But, it's fairly easy to put down for a week and pick up again. I couldn't always keep the people and relationships straight, but it didn't matter. It was much more about the what happened rather than the who it happened to.

I'll loan you my copy if you want to give it a whirl.

anjie said...

Hey Danigirl,

I love your feedback! I got the sense that the "sentimental and sappy" beginning definitely served its purpose - twofold: as representative of significant Chinese culture/history, and as an essential building block to the story's powerful plot coinciding with the lessons Peony has to learn. I was just SO slow to get that!

Although it portrays Japanese history, and not Chinese, I devoured Memoirs of a Geisha several years ago as well. I found that both Memoirs and Peony gave me a sense of Asian culture that isn't necessarily conveyed on Wikipedia. (duh)

Thanks for the tip on Wild Swans. That's been recommended to me before; I'll have to bump it up a notch on my long list.

Next on the list:
Wendell Berry's 'That Distant Land' (I've never read anything by him but he's supposed to be great) and 'Pope Joan.' That last one's for a new book club I'm in - and it's historical drama set in the Medieval period, when a female Pope rules for 3 weeks before being found out to be a chick.

Will review those sometime. Feel free to comment on ANYTHING in my book reviews, including additional comments I post (anybody!) - I love book discussions, peops.

Anonymous said...

As you know I've read all of Lisa See's works plus her auto. They're worth a re-read.

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