Tuesday, January 12, 2010

C is for....


Chen, the family name of the main character in Peony in Love by Lisa See (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

I picked up Peony in Love with a fair bit of anticipation. I had read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan years ago and remembered it fondly (I was on my honeymoon in Jamaica at the time, though, so I also remember the mild case of food poisoning I got on that trip with fondness--just saying, not the best gauge). In addition, the concept--that the story builds around a famous Chinese opera called The Peony Pavillion--was also intriguing. I like novels that play on mythology or older stories, like C.S. Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces, based off of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, so the concept was fascinating to me. Set in seventeenth-century China, the book follows Peony as she prepares to marry out, only to fall in love, reorienting the course of her life--and beyond.

One bit of trouble that using a source so poorly-known to a Western audience as this, however, is that the nuances of the old story get lost unless you make them very obvious. It's not as though the author is putting in shades of Cinderella--the general audience, me included, isn't going to have any familiarity with The Peony Pavillion. So, while I enjoyed the concept and much of how it played into the book, I often felt that I had to be led too much in order to be in on the secret.

See's writing is very pretty in spots, and I really enjoyed how it evolved with the narrator, sixteen-year-old Peony, as she matures and changes over the course of Part One of the book. As she becomes more introverted as her marriage approaches, her voice takes on a poetic, ethereal quality. At the same time, the exotic elements that I enjoyed reading and learning about for the first time in Snow Flower, such as the descriptions of footbinding, were less entrancing the second time around.

Using C for Chen is especially fitting given that the family becomes a vital force in the book, propelling elements of the story. It also serves as the setting for Part One, as Peony never leaves the Chen family villa for the course of her young life.

Not wishing to give much away, I won't go into Parts Two and Three...but this is where things fell apart for me. I still enjoyed the book, but the latter two-thirds enters paranormal territory that I'm less entranced with than the "real" flesh-and-blood world. The religious/mythological elements were often interesting to read, but I would have preferred a story that remained grounded in the fascinating historical setting that See created in Part One.

9 comments:

Jenny said...

What is the story behind Peony Pavillion? I haven't had a chance to read See's book but I've wanted to, so I'd be interested.

missbluestocking said...

Hmmm I'm rethinking now about reading this book. This book is right in the other room of my house. Have always been tempted to read it. But it seemed like a tear jerker. And I don't like investing my emotions into a love story that will end sadly, or dully, in this novel's case, it seems

Rowenna said...

Hi Jenny -- The Peony Pavillion is an opera in which a girl and guy fall in love (isn't it always?), but they only meet in dreams and then she dies before they can be united in real life. But their story continues into the afterlife and she is eventually brought back to life by his dedication. (Rough synopsis--I'm only familiar from See's book, so I'm probably missing a lot!) The symbolism and imagery of the opera is conveyed very well by See.

Rowenna said...

Hi June! It is rather sad...though perhaps not as sad as it seems it should be. By the end, more bittersweet. I was just disappointed because it wasn't what I expected--others might like that surprise turn on it :)

Miss Moppet said...

I'd never heard of this author but you've made me want to investigate further!

Rowenna said...

Hi Miss Moppet--enjoy your literary trip to China :)

Carrie C said...

Lovely review! You write well and I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing!

Stephanie said...

This sounds really good -- I have heard terrific things about this author. I love the way you described how the author's voice developed, throughout the novel, as she matured.

Rowenna said...

Thanks for stopping by, Carrie and Stephanie! If you read Peony, I hope you enjoy :)