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>Peony in Love

April 15, 2010

>I enjoyed reading Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and then I enjoyed Shanghai Girls. So when I saw the audiobook of Peony in Love at the library, I checked it out.

And I’ve been driving around blazing mad ever since. The main character, Peony, who narrates the story in first person, dies at the end of the second disk. I looked at the three remaining disks and wondered what else there was to say. Well, the rest of the story is the story of how Peony learns what mature love is…as a ghost.

Why does this make me mad? Because she’s a ninny who doesn’t have the brains to understand anyone’s motives but her own and doesn’t even have the native wit to keep her eyes open at the defining moment of her life. If you ask me, her life was a total waste. Her parents don’t talk to her; the misunderstandings that led to her death could have been easily prevented. But finally she realizes that the only thing in her life she has any power over is whether she will eat, and she decides that she will not. Her world is unbearable anyway, bound first by the circumference of the women’s quarters and the few steps she can take in her bound feet, from which the ends of sticking-out bones have to be occasionally filed off, and later by her mother’s seemingly inexplicable decision to lock her in her bedroom for months. While locked in the bedroom, she does what any 16-year-old girl will do; she writes poetry.

Since this is a work of fiction, any poetry that a woman writes is very good and worthy of being published. The only conflict is that in Peony’s culture, women are not supposed to want to be published. So the extended story of Peony’s ghostly existence is the story of how her poems and her commentary on an opera finally get published.

Ah, so that’s okay then, right? If this is a story about professional fulfillment for a woman during a time when that was all but impossible, then that makes having to read through the totally repellent story of the waste of several female lives–including one woman whose feet were bound solely because of Peony’s ghostly hints–worth it. Um, no, I don’t think so!

I think I can drive around for another week powered by my anger at the implicit argument that achieving fame as a writer is a happy ending for a girl who wanted to get married and have babies. Her life was a waste, and no ghost story is going to change that.

There are women today who get to have both a family and a career. And there have always been women who had to choose one or the other. But there are no women who should starve themselves to death so they can be venerated as “lovesick maidens” and have their writing published posthumously. That’s an adolescent dream, and what kind of adult person goes around telling stories to encourage the belief that it can actually happen?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 6:39 pm

    >I had the ghost problem with Her Fearful Symmetry. I bought it up to a point and then it just made me crazy. SURELY the author can do better than this!

  2. April 15, 2010 6:39 pm

    >Wow. I hadn't read this one yet, and now I'm glad for that! Listening to a frustrating book like that can be so draining. You get out of the car and just want to smack someone! šŸ™‚ I'd recommend giving yourself a treat and listening to something lighthearted. The Harry Potters are great, and the newly recorded "Good Omens" by Gaiman & Pratchett has been making me smile. šŸ™‚

  3. April 15, 2010 8:02 pm

    >Wow, I wonder why she chose to tell that from a ghost's perspective. I agree that there is little worth starving yourself for.

  4. April 15, 2010 9:10 pm


  5. April 16, 2010 12:01 am

    >FreshHell, it did strike me kind of like the story that ends "and then he woke up."Betty, I finished listening to it on my way to work this morning and on the way back I did listen to some of the last Harry Potter book, which I keep in the car for such occasions.Kathy, it's the glamorizing of the starving herself that gets to me. Every time some young girl started displaying anorexic symptoms, everyone would call it "lovesickness."ReadersGuide, yes. Although I'm waiting for someone to call my reaction cultural insensitivity.

  6. April 16, 2010 2:06 am

    >Ghost love just doesn't work for me. I've had this problem with several books. It trivializes life, love and the afterlife (whether you believe in it or not) without even being funny. Black humor I like. Dead people romance as a compensation for a wasted life, not so much.When a book makes me as mad as Peony has made you, I always figure the author has done at least one thing right, in making the character real enough to disgust me…Thanks for using the word "ninny." It's such a good one!

  7. April 16, 2010 9:46 am

    >Oh gah, it sounds very much like another story about how great girls who die celibate are. If a girl is going to die and then learn about love I want her to have had some serious fun first šŸ˜‰

  8. April 16, 2010 1:31 pm

    >Trapunto, good point. I did care about Peony, and that's why the book made me so angry.Jodie, she had no fun, aside from a few secret moments of talking to a boy. But she was proud of the way her feet looked.

  9. April 16, 2010 9:37 pm

    >Snow Flower is one of my favorites.I wonder if I'd enjoy this one.Little is worth starving yourself over.Great, honest review.

  10. April 19, 2010 1:18 pm

    >Naida, As Trapunto points out, the character of Peony is very real…

  11. April 19, 2010 8:14 pm

    >Lemming, I did read The Madwoman in the Attic as a grad student. Guess that's why I'm not a Victorianist.

  12. April 25, 2010 5:27 pm

    >Thanks for adding your write up to the Book Review Blog Carnival!

  13. May 7, 2010 12:55 pm

    >There's definitely no glamor in starving oneself to death. I knew the book was told from the POV of a ghost, but that's about all I knew. I really loved Shanghai Girls, so I was thrilled when I spotted this book and Snow Flower at the recent library sale. I'll still give it a try at some point, but thanks for the heads-up.–AnnaDiary of an Eccentric

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