Musings on Peony in Love
August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”
Young Peony was brought up to be a good daughter and wife. At her sixteenth birthday, she knows that her future is set but when she chances a meeting with a handsome man at a theater performance, she begins to feel a longing and desire that sets the course for this novel.
Originally, when I read the blurb of this book, I thought it had an incredibly interesting concept and was rather excited to read a novel that was so rich in Chinese culture and tradition, since I would be rather ignorant in these matters. So naturally, I really wanted to like this book. It’s quite unfortunate that the book had very few redeeming qualities.
The character of Peony, I felt, was one that was very difficult to sympathise with. Her naivety, innocence and idealism can be dismissed as a result of her young age for a certain part of the novel but since it persists for the whole duration of it, it’s easy to conclude that these things are deeply entrenched character traits rather than anything else. There is growth in Peony’s character during the novel, noticeable growth but none of that makes me like her more as a character.
The writing itself is simplistic, which works for the book for the most part. However, a lot of the descriptions felt jarring and contrived, as if the author was purposely trying to be too poetic – to the point where the prose was actually slightly amusing as opposed to solemn or sincere.
However, the plot itself was probably the biggest problem of the novel for me. Reading the Afterword of the book, Lisa See seems to believe that she has managed to capture some form of female historical resistance or empowerment through this piece of literature and whilst there are certain aspects of that, they are quickly overridden by a largely misogynistic narrative. I understand that See was attempting to tell the true story of these women but she admits to the lack of knowledge about the three wives of the Wu family. It seems that See invented much of what happened in the latter half of the book – the supernatural elements of it. So it is disappointing and slightly sickening actually, the sheer amount of disrespect given to women in the plot during this latter half. I felt this especially through the portrayal of Ze’s character. She’s made out to be a villain for the majority of the book, whilst we’re supposed to be sympathise with the main character of Peony, despite the fact that Peony robbed Ze of her agency and her body. Whilst there were certain narratives within the overarching story that I enjoyed; such as the excursions of Peony’s mother and grandmother (overridden by the Manchus invasion – I felt it eventually told a story about a woman’s place being at home and punished the two characters for their attempt to traverse outside of their gender roles) and the Banana Garden Five, the overall story, although boasted of female empowerment and feminist ideologies, entirely failed in its promises.