Because this isn't a traditional historical, I knew the plot would be much more interesting and inventive. Not to say historical fiction is dry, but when you stick to the realms of the possible, there are only so many options. With this book, the sky wasn't the limit- it was a flexible guideline.
The Plot: (As Seen on Goodreads)
'“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 new 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.'
Although Peony wasn't the typical character I'd cheer for: she makes brutal mistakes, she doesn't really have friends, and her head is in the clouds 99.9% of the time, she still ended up being a heroine I love. Her life isn't easy, and despite being cloistered away from bad influences, she makes some bad ones all by herself. That didn't make me mad and want to give up reading the book, although some Goodreads users said it disturbed them because it was a very stupid decision. All I can say is I had a classmate in my grade school who made a similar mistake for a different reason, but thankfully none of Peony's consequences applied to her.
This is a book I would only loosely label a romance- it has romantic themes, Peony reminded me sometimes of myself as a teenager, but it doesn't have your average ending. As magical realism is one of my favorite genres, I could see certain plot points coming, but I enjoyed them greatly. I read two other of Ms. See's books, but this one is my clear favorite so far. Magical realism is a genre that I really never tire of.
Peony in Love is not your mother's historical fiction. If you're looking for realism without mythological elements, this won't be your book. But, if you don't mind keeping an open mind to a different way of life, and don't mind some serious otherworldly elements, Peony in Love won't disappoint you. I recommend this for fans of magical realism and historical fiction, because this book is a clear genre mixer.
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for my favorite Lisa See book to date!
Content: Ages 16+ for sexual references, violence, and a different kind of love story.
Page Count: 297 in my paperback edition