Last October, my roomees and I planned a day full of "unconventional" activities - bouldering for beginners in the morning, a scrumptious lunch (a must!) and the largest book sale I've ever seen. While I have to admit I'd never been so delighted, I do think many people bought way too many books that they perhaps were never going to read, simply because they were so cheap. Novels that usually go for RM30+ were selling at RM8. So, I don't know if such sales actually encourages reading, or simply fueled unparalleled impulse buying. Fortunately, my roomees and I were still rather level-headed. We didn't blindly grab all the RM5 and RM8 titles we didn't intend to read... I think. *Ahem*
Some time later, Bee Ree suggested that we share among ourselves brief synopses of the titles we've read. The first one she wrote was for Peony in Love by Lisa See. There was love and loss, and ghosts. I asked to be the first to borrow it.
Last Saturday, we met. While I forgot all about Bee Ree wanting to borrow my copy of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, she placed the book I asked for in my hands. You see, Reader, this is karma - I've always laughed at her for being somewhat senile, and look what I've become...
When I got home, I forced myself to complete my work duties - exam scripts - and then started eagerly on the book. I read well into the night. I read continuously through the next day. It's been years - and I do mean, yearsss - since I indulged so, and it felt so good. I finished the 273-page book (well, a 280-page for me, since I'd read the Author's Note at the end as well) that night - within 24 hours since I started it.
The story was set in the 17th century during the Qing Dynasty. Peony was two days away from turning sixteen, and just months away from her wedding day. The man she would marry had been chosen for her since her birth and he would be a stranger to her until their wedding night. Such, was the custom - marriage was a compulsory duty to one's family and not in the least a choice or had anything to do with love. This is a solid and recurring point presented throughout the book - families took care to raise and educate their daughters to please their future husbands' families.
In contrast with the reiterations of the idea of the worthlessness of daughters, Peony's parents loved and doted on her. Her father arranged a production of her favourite opera, The Peony Pavillion, to be staged in the compound of their family mansion, and she was sure it was meant to be a treat for her, though he would never put it that way. The opera would play for three nights. On the first night, Peony grew restless in the middle of one of the scenes, and stole away into the garden. There, she met a handsome young man whom she'd spotted among the audience earlier. In the era where women, especially the unmarried, were not allowed beyond the inner walls of their homes, where they must stay hidden behind screens when there were male guests, being alone with a male stranger amounted to way more than a scandal. Peony was aware that she could ruin her life if they were caught. Yet, they exchanged words. They exchanged musings on the opera. They somehow fell a little in love. He asked to meet again, and for the next two nights, they did. Peony fell hopelessly in love with the man, a poet, whose name she did not know.
Thus, began her obsession with The Peony Pavillion, in which the female protagonist, Du Liniang, had a passionate dream of a scholar and subsequently died pining for her dream-lover. Peony couldn't eat nor sleep. She thought about her love for the poet, about her impending marriage to her betrothed whom she was sure she would not love, about living her entire life without love. These tortured thoughts she penned in form of poems and commentaries in her copy of the opera. Month passed; Peony wasted away and died, just days before her wedding. Too late, she found out, the man chosen for her was the man she'd fallen in love with.
Her ghost continues to narrate - how her tablet, not yet dotted, was hidden away and forgotten, causing her to indefinitely roam the earth as a hungry ghost; how she watched her family and her poet carried on without her; how she learned the history of her family from deceased elders; how she wronged and righted her wrongs. Her soul wandered for twenty-nine years. In that time, she influenced her poet's following two wives to complete her intended commentary of The Peony Pavillion.
The Three Wives' Commentary is a real publication - written by the three wives of a poet, Wu Ren (also Wu Ren in the novel). Peony In Love, in fact, is the fictional story of how a real and significant work by three real women, at a time when women were insignificant, came to be.
There are references to and detailed descriptions of many traditional Chinese customs, including foot-binding and rituals performed for the dead. I personally do not believe in most of the customs and superstitions, but I enjoyed this read, regardless. On the theme of love - at first, though - I found it hard not to laugh at someone who threw her life away over a dream, and someone who fancied herself so deeply in love after just three rendez-vous that she starved herself to death. Then, I reminded myself that theirs is a world too different from ours. When one must walk her parents' chosen path for her - to marry for the main purpose of producing sons, to always obey and always made inferior, to literally have nothing much to live for - the very thought of the loss of what could have been is quite possibly enough to snuff out the feeble will to live...