three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
By: 
Lisa See
user_rating: 
0

A-Peony in LoveIn 17th-century China, the opera The Peony Pavilion, in which the heroine follows her heart and, as a result, dies, was as powerful a cultural phenomenon as Beatlemania in the 1960s. Lovesick girls starved themselves to death in the hopes of choosing their own destinies in the afterlife. Perhaps more constructively, thousands of cultured women discovered their literary voice—and wrote poems, travel narratives, and criticism. Drawing on the lives of three such writers, Peony in Love presents a personal story of romantic longing, artistic inspiration, metaphysical intrigue, and the dynastic changes in China that fostered this revolutionary moment in history.
Random House. 284 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 140006466X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"See is a master storyteller, calling on her knowledge of history, myth, and current international events to craft intricate narratives that are at once edifying and evocative." Jessica Treadway

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"See transports the reader to a distant time and culture steeped in rituals and superstitions. Her descriptions are so vivid—from the painful binding of women’s feet to the beautifully dressed remains of a ‘lovesick maiden’ to the ghosts who gorge on food offerings—that the most fantastic elements seem real." Susan Kelly

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a novel that gathers strength slowly but has cumulative grace—primarily because See never loses sight of her overarching subject, the way women lived and were regarded in traditional Chinese culture." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Suffice it to say that the pleasures of Peony in Love are neither those of logic nor chronology. Years pass in a paragraph; realms are traversed in a line. This reader felt, from time to time, almost literally transported and commends the willing suspension of Western disbelief. There’s much here to be savored and a great deal to be learned." Nicholas Delbanco

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The high melodrama can sometimes feel overwrought, and the pleasures of the book lean toward an intellectual appreciation of the culture so richly described. … There is a curious distancing effect caused by the characters’ sometimes-hyperbolic expression of love and loss, and we are often told about emotional vicissitudes rather than made to feel them." Marisa Silver

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"Peony in Love reminds me most of Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier’s follow-up to his stunning story Cold Mountain. Both successor novels are burdened by weaker narrative pulses and lumpy structures. The writing in Peony can be beautiful, but more often feels rushed, awkward and didactic." Karen Long

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 2 of 5 Stars
"Bogged down in historical and cultural details, See allows herself to drift into other unnecessary details. The story plods and then thuds to its predictable conclusion." Catherine Mallette

Critical Summary

If critical responses to Peony in Love are a bit uneven, consider that they follow the breakout success of Lisa See’s previous novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005). See continues to base her work on China’s history, and her thorough research shines here. However, the richness of detail threatens to overshadow the narrative, a fault which prompts one reviewer to assert that Peony in Love, whose plot mirrors that of an opera and which serves up themes of love, inspiration, and creativity, would be have been better as a work of history than a novel. But for historically accurate, impassioned fiction about China’s women, See has few peers.