Bound and gagged

Lisa See gets tied up in the Qing
By CLEA SIMON  |  July 18, 2007

GHOST STORY: Are See’s characters too much of their time?

Peony In Love | by Lisa See | Random House | 304 pages | $23.95
Girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl wins boy back. It’s an old story, and it usually works, even when it’s set halfway around the world in China and the girl and boy are 17th-century Qing Dynasty aristocrats. That the girl is modeling her behavior on a Ming-era opera set nearly 100 years earlier shouldn’t complicate things. But when the girl is dead for most of the book, her behavior circumscribed by a rigid code that reaches beyond the grave — well, that’s when contemporary readers might begin to lose interest.

Such, sadly, is the case with Lisa See’s intriguing new novel, Peony in Love. Based in part on Tang Xianzu’s 1598 opera, The Peony Pavilion, the book follows the life and afterlife of a susceptible young woman named Peony. Like the heroine of the opera, she dies for love — her “lovesickness” manifests as anorexia — only to discover that her secret beloved was in fact her legitimate betrothed. She then spends the remainder of the book haunting him and learning more mature ways to express her devotion.

Historical fiction seeks to bring a past period, and often real people, back to life through contemporary narrative. It’s an honest genre, descending from the likes of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. But these days, a number of considerations — the amount of research involved, the thickness of sentiment applied to make characters congenial, the gender of the author — can cause such works to be derided as revisionist pop fluff. In order to connect with readers, the author must balance the mores of the day with a contemporary consciousness. Female characters in particular can be challenging: should a leading lady accept societal restrictions or rail against them?

See is much too serious a writer to trade anachronisms for popularity, and she weaves in details of death and marriage rituals, as well as such real literary sources as the fascinating TheThree Wives’ Commentary (which she has her characters pen). Similar research fueled 2005’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. But in that 19th-century story, See’s heroine expressed a more timeless, if not modern, sensibility, using period details to illustrate the suffering in foot binding, for example. In Peony, which is set 200 years earlier, the protagonist is more completely of her time, and as she matures, she becomes increasingly obedient. One of her last acts is to instruct a poor mother in the foot binding of her daughter. Although Peony acknowledges the “blinding whiteness of pain,” she gives it much less consideration than Snow Flower did, drawing on “mother love” to turn a six-year-old into a more valuable “inside girl.” Perhaps that’s how women rationalized their actions, but after the horrors realistically depicted by Snow Flower, this neutral approach is disturbing. And with the entire story told in first person by Peony, there’s no evident authorial consciousness to intervene.

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