Sunday, December 23, 2007

Peony in Love

Peony is the cherished only child of the first wife of a wealthy Chinese nobleman. Yet she is betrothed to a man she has never met and, as her sixteenth birthday approaches, she has neither seen nor spoken to any man other than her father and has never ventured outside the cloistered women's quarters of the Chen Family Villa. She is trapped like a good-luck Chinese epic opera The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Her father engages a small theatrical troupe to perform scenes from The Peony Pavilion in their garden amidst the scent of ginger, green tea and jasmine. Peony's mother is against the production: "Unmarried girls should not be seen in public." But Peony's father prevails, assuring his wife that proprieties will be maintained. Women will watch the opera from behind a screen to hide them from view. Yet through a crack, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave and is immediately bewitched by him.

So begins Peony's unforgettable journey of love, desire, sorrow and redemption. Lisa See's compelling new novel takes readers back to seventeenth-century China and into the heart and soul of an unforgettable heroine. - Synopsis from back cover of the novel.

Peony in Love is one of the best novels I've read in 2007. Lisa See wrote an intriguing and heart-wrenching novel about Peony and two other women centering on Tang Xianzu's opera The Peony Pavilion. The opera heavily promotes qing - deep emotions and sentimental love. The synopsis has given a great overview of the novel but that's just the beginning. Following Peony's will to chart her own destiny largely influenced by the opera, her life and the life of her loved ones are affected, including that of her future husband's. It is tragic but redemptive. I wept reading Part One of the book - the romance and tragedy is too much to bear.

As stated by Lisa See, there are several elements at play in the telling of the story: Tang Xianzu's opera, the lovesick maidens, the history of The Three Wives' Commentary, and the societal change that allowed it to be written. This is a book rich with Chinese customs such as footbinding and how to be a good wife, funerary rites, beliefs about the afterworld, the three parts of the soul, the abilities and weaknesses of spirits, and ghost marriages. Lisa See has consulted a lot subject matter experts and performed much research in the studying of the women's writings and other elements in the story. While Peony in Love is a work of fiction, the three women in the story were real.

I have enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by the same author and I highly recommend this one too.

I can't just stop here. I searched for a copy of the translated classic and bought a used copy on Betterworld.com. I am even thinking of obtaining a copy of Bitter Love, the audio CD based on the opera which showcases the fusion of music and poetry by the New York-based Tan Dun. "The traditional love story of The Peony Pavilion--which bears some striking similarities to the Orpheus myth--comes through in floating, dreamlike fragments that reflect Chinese poet Tang Xianzu's lucid imagery like a smoky moon against water. [...] Tan creates an eclectic collage of styles that mix East and West, old and new, as well as classical purity and pop energy, all with audacious imagination. [...] he exhibits an almost childlike delight in the sensuous appeal of sounds here, in the overlay of traditional Chinese instruments such as pipa with synth beats, cross rhythms, and a panoply of percussion. Soprano Ying Huang gives Tan's fluttering threads of melody a silver sheen." - Amazon.com