5 reviews

Peony in Love: A Novel
by Lisa See

Published: 2007-06-26
Hardcover : 304 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 5 members
“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 ...
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(“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.

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Discussion Questions

1. On page 76, Lisa See quotes the poet Han Yun, who wrote, “All things not at peace will cry out.” What do you think he meant by that? And in what ways does this inspire Peony and the other women writers in the novel?

2.What are the different kinds of love that Peony experiences? How does her love for Ren (as well as for her mother, father, grandmother, Yi, and even Willow) change through the years? Have you had similar experiences in your life?

3.Anticipating her first meeting with Ren in the Moon-Viewing Pavilion, Peony states: “Monthly bleeding doesn’t turn a girl into a woman, nor does betrothal or new skills. Love had turned me into a woman” (p. 49). Is Peony’s statement true?

4.Peony is filled with doubt after meeting Ren–doubt about their relationship, doubt about ever finding love, and doubt about being a good mother. What is the source of this doubt and how does it grow within Peony?

5.In the nights of watching The Peony Pavilion, Peony has many visions of the man she will marry, and many visions of “her poet.” Why isn’t she able to make the connection that both men are one and the same? What signs does she overlook and why?

6.On page 94, Peony thinks she’s being dressed for her wedding, but instead she’s taken to the courtyard to die. Peony is certainly surprised by this turn of events. Were you? How does this moment affect Peony’s future actions and her feelings about her family? How do you feel about this practice?

7.Many men have told Lisa See that they don’t like the idea of the Chinese afterworld, where your relatives are still your relatives and your position remains the same as it was in life. Many women, on the other hand, have told her that they find the idea of the Chinese afterworld comforting. They want to be united with their families in the afterworld and still be able to interfere in the living world. What are the differences and similarities between the Chinese afterworld and Western religions’ concept of heaven and hell? Which would you prefer–for yourself and for your loved ones–and why?

8.We see a difference in Peony’s actions after Ze marries Ren and again after Ze dies. Do you see redemption here for Peony?

9.In what ways is mother love, from both a mother’s perspective and a daughter’s perspective, explored? What does Peony learn about mother love, and in what ways does she experience it herself? What aspects of mother love still hold true for mothers and daughters today?

10.How does what happened during the Cataclysm change depending on who’s telling the story?

11.Peony in Love shows the strength of women and women’s friendship, but in what ways does it also show the dark shadow side of women, whether in the women’s chambers, between a mother and daughter, between wives, or even between friends?

12.Peony in Love is very much a tale of secrets and the power secrets can exercise over others. What are the secrets? Who is affected by the secrets and how do they change through the story?

13.You have read about three generations of women, and also about the people around them–both male and female. Of all the characters, which do you feel you are most like, and why? Are there any people like these characters in your life today?

14.Often what we hate most about ourselves–our weight, our tendency toward selfishness, our vanity, etc.– is what we are most critical of in others. Trace the progress of Peony’s relationship with Tan Ze–through life together in the Chen Family Villa and then in the afterlife. In what ways are Peony and Tan Ze alike, and in what ways are they different? Why do they need each other, and how do they serve one another? Do you have similar symbiotic relationships in your life, and in what ways would you expect those relationships to change in the afterlife?

Suggested by Members

Did you know anything about these women writers in China? Did the book want to make you know more about them?
How could See have structured the book to still get her message across, but avoid some of the pitfalls of this ghost story?
by FTessa (see profile) 05/08/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

People keep secrets from each other all the time. Wives keep secrets from their husbands; husbands keep secrets from their wives. We’ll tell one friend something but not another. Secrets begin almost from birth. There are many things we choose not to tell our children. Of course, many wonderful things are passed from grandmother to mother to daughter down through the generations, and those things make us into the people we are. But there are other stories–secrets–that also have a ripple effect. We may not know what happened in the past–that’s why they’re secrets–but these things also help to turn us into the people we become as adults. I’ve found that many of these secrets have to do with how men and women treat each other, with the result that generations later you find women who are extremely fearful of men, or have a belief that men will somehow “save” them, or that they have a repeating pattern of choosing an alcoholic or abusive husband, and they don’t know why.

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Member Reviews

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by Esther M. (see profile) 08/13/17

by Joyce W. (see profile) 03/22/17

  "A History Lesson"by Kristi F. (see profile) 10/12/12

Peony in Love is filled with Chinese customs, beliefs and history. Lisa See wove this story together with a very different perspective than ever before and does an incredible job teaching us... (read more)

  "Immersion into Chinese Culture"by F Tessa B. (see profile) 05/08/12

3*** for the Audio book narrated by Janet Song.
In 17th century China, Peony has grown up as the only child of the wealthy Chen family. Her father is a scholar and he has encouraged his da
... (read more)

  "Peony in Love"by Betty S. (see profile) 08/26/10

Shaping the role of people within a society takes on many socially accepted practices and views which are introduced at a very young age such as the foot binding of the female characters in ... (read more)

  "Not worth readin"by John D. (see profile) 08/20/10

Most books I give 50 pages - this one I could only survive 10

  "Fascinating insight to the chinese culture"by Renee U. (see profile) 02/11/10

Interesting view into chinese culture, even if it is alittle slow, definitely worth reading.

  "A love story that never was......."by Laura G. (see profile) 04/05/09

The book was long and in some spots slow, but the background and culture was very interesting. The sad story is not a happy one...but I overall I did enjoy the book!

  "This book explores the traditional belief of the afterlife in Chinese culture"by Joanne L. (see profile) 02/09/09

Although I really enjoyed this book, I know that many of our book club members did not like it. It seems to me that either with either love it or hate it, there isn't much room for in between. This book... (read more)

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