Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

peony in love

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting  novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard

From my book group in paperback format. I have read other books by this author (specifically Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – no review for some reason – and Shanghai Girls).

The book is split into three parts and roughly follows the format of The Peony Pavilion,  a 16th-century opera (

Its central theme proclaims the significance of an ultimate triumph of ‘love’ over ‘reason’.

In the early years of the Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279), a beautiful young lady named Du Liniang, daughter of the Governor of Nanan, was strictly educated and could not step out of her chambers without her parents’ permission. One day without her parents’ knowledge Du went into the garden with her maid. Watching the splendor of the spring at its peak, she was overcome with deep feelings. In a drowsy trance, she dreamt that she had a secret rendezvous with a young scholar under a plum tree by the side of the Peony Pavilion. Ever since returning from the garden, she was haunted by memories of her dream lover and, after seeking the dream in vain, fell ill and soon died of a broken heart. After her death, Du’s spirit kept searching for the young scholar. Her persistence won over the Judge of the Netherworld and she was allowed to be reincarnated.

Du and Liu Mengmei meet a few years later, fall in love and live happily ever after.

Section one is about Peony, the only child of a wealthy family, on the cusp of her 16th birthday. Betrothed to a man she has never met, she has lived in seclusion, never being allowed outside the family compound, and never having talked to a man besides her father. She has been pampered, being taught matters way above her station as a girl, and she has a fascination for the opera The Peony Pavilion.

Escaping on the first of three nights covering the performance her father has put on (Peony thinks it was staged to mark her birthday, but, in fact, was put on to curry favour with a local official), she meets an unnamed man, with which she has an instant connection. For the following two nights, she disappears off to meet him again and convinces herself that she’s met her soul-mate and her marriage will never live up to this ideal. She finds out that her poet and her betrothed are the same man (Ren) but it is too late – she has stopped eating and drinking and ends up starving herself to death, just like the characters in the opera.

Section two has Peony in the afterlife, still believing that she was loved by all and that Ren is the love of her life, and that the two of them will be reunited on one plane or another. The author makes great use of the Chinese belief of the afterlife (so different to the Christian West’s), where offerings of food, money, clothes etc need to be burnt to ensure an easier movement through the afterlife. Since the family doesn’t perform the correct rites and provide the right offerings, Peony is unable to progress to the next step of reincarnation or release. Her grandmother is also in the same section of the afterlife, and after 7 years loitering in limbo, Peony is beginning to grow up and realise that life was not as rosy as she thought.  For example: her father is not the idealist that Peony had believed him to be, and did not pamper her as much as she believed; her mother had a lot more freedom when younger, being able to travel outside with her mother in law, talking to other women, producing their own writings etc; Peony finds out that her Grandmother is nothing like she was portrayed in the Ancestor worship – and there was a reason why her death during the Cataclysm (where the Qing Dynasty was violently replaced by the Ming Dynasty) was never discussed.  Peony comes to learn about the suffering both her mother and grandmother experienced during the fighting and that the sternness her mother treated her with as a girl was only her attempt to protect her daughter from the evils of the outside world.

Peony also meets other girls of around her own age who have also died, believing in an ideal dream love, usually as a result of The Peony Pavilion. She comes to realise that there is an alternative reason the funeral rites have not been performed – as an unwed daughter, an only child no less, she is not worthy of the rites that would have been afforded a son (married or not).

Peony is is shocked when she finds a new woman arrive as a bride for Ren, and even more so when she finds out who it is…Ze was a child of 9 when the opera was staged and she had also set her cap at Ren. Ze had insisted that she marry Ren but when she got what she wanted realised that she didn’t love him. During the marriage, Peony uses her skills as an Angry Ghost to manipulate Ze to come closer to Ren, whilst continuing her work on a commentary of The Peony Palace so that Ren would not forget her.

However Ze gets the upper hand in the end, allowing Ren to take credit for the work when it’s found…..women being of such low standing they couldn’t have produced such work. Ze also becomes pregnant but starves herself to death rather than take the unwanted baby to term.

Part 3 is all about exile. After the death of Ze, Peony hides away, only to emerge years later. She has found that her mother has died and joined her in the afterlife. Peony has identified a high-born woman who has ended up marrying well below her station. Peony takes an interest in the youngest daughter, ensuring that her feet are bound, even though it makes her worthless to her farmer father. When 16 (and Ren in his 40s), Peony manipulates things so that Ren gets married for the second time. Yi is much more willing and compliant and because of her, the work of all three women on The Peony Pavilion commentary comes to the fore and the women start getting the recognition they deserve.  Meanwhile, Ren finds out that the ancestor worship for Peony hasn’t been completed, so works on getting this done, so releasing Peony to complete her journey.

This is a very interesting take on the nature of grief, love and personal growth and it is only with Peony learning to be selfless in her love for Ren and looking out for ultimately what would make him happy that she gets the release that she needs.

Additional Resources

Reading Guide notes and Questions

Wikipedia page

About this author

Lisa See is a Chinese-American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Dragon Bones, and On Gold Mountain. She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter.





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