Lisa See's haunting portrait of a doomed Chinese maiden
Nothing is more miserable—or more exhilarating—than a good case of lovesickness. But what does it mean to be lovesick? Is it high school puppy love, dreamily doodling the initials of a crush? Or is it something much darker?
In Peony in Love, the elegant and haunting follow-up to her extraordinarily successful novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), author Lisa See explores the true phenomenon of lovesick maidens: privileged but cloistered Chinese girls who fell under the spell of a romantic opera and literally wasted away.
The Chinese government actually censored the 1598 opera, "The Peony Pavilion," believing it to be dangerous. The opera tells the story of Liniang, a young woman who meets her lover in a dream, and upon awakening is so lovesick that she dies of a broken heart. In the end, her lover brings her back to life. The opera was revolutionary in its time, because it depicted a young woman choosing her own path.
In 17th-century China, the setting of See's Peony in Love, it was customary for the wives, concubines and daughters of wealthy men to live their entire lives behind the gates of the family villa. Young women were promised to men they didn't meet until their wedding night, when they were transferred like property from their natal family to their in-laws. Even if the girls were allowed outside the "inner chambers" of their homes, the disfiguration caused by their bound feet—an indication of good breeding and wealth that rendered women unable to do the hard work that should be left to servants—made it impossible for them to travel far.
These well-educated but sheltered girls who died in the name of love intrigued See.
"These girls were living more or less totally confined lives," See says in an interview from her home in Los Angeles, where she was preparing to embark on a 15-city book tour. "They never met their husbands. A lot of them never went out. They thought that in emulating Liniang, maybe they, too, would have some choice in their lives. Maybe true love would bring them back to life."
That fate doesn't await the doomed 16-year-old in See's new novel. Peony meets her soul mate during a forbidden late-night walk on the outskirts of her family villa. She sneaks away again the next night to meet him while her family is engrossed in a local production of "The Peony Pavilion." But Peony knows she is destined to marry a man she's been promised to since birth. Soon, she finds herself obsessed with the very opera that has condemned so many other girls to their deaths. She sets off down the same dark path as she awaits her wedding day.
At its heart, Peony in Love is a ghostly coming-of-age novel.
"Peony learns the way we all learn: She makes horrible, stupid mistakes," See says. "Her heart is always in the right place but like all of us, sometimes that isn't enough."
See uses her book to explore the mythology and beliefs that still linger in her own Chinese-American family, including the tradition of honoring the spirits of family members after they die. Although she and her grown sons are thoroughly American, See still identifies with the culture and customs of her ancestors.
"I have red hair and freckles," she said. "I don't look Chinese, and (my sons) look even less so." But, she says, most of the some 400 relatives they have in Los Angeles are fully Chinese.
"When my kids think about family, that's the family they envision," she said. "Those people, they were my mirror."
Writing is another tradition that runs in the See family. See's mother, Carolyn See, is an accomplished novelist and book reviewer who taught her daughter to commit to her writing.
"Ever since I was a little kid, she was saying, 'Write a thousand words a day,'" See recalls. "She also taught me to not be afraid to go to some pretty dark places in my writing."
Although See is able to disconnect from her work at the end of the day ("I still make dinner and go to the dry cleaners," she laughs), being immersed in such intense projects does affect her.
"When I write, I don't have dreams," she says. "The first six weeks after I finish a book, I have the most vivid dreams. I think in some ways I'm doing my dreaming during the day, and by the time I'm done writing for the day, I can wake up."
It might have seemed to See that she was dreaming when Snow Flower—which now has almost a million copies in print—became a bestseller. See keeps on her desk a photo she snapped of a Snow Flower promotional poster she saw in a Paris Metro station.
"What happened with Snow Flower was and still is such a shock and a surprise to me," See says. "Of all of my books, I thought, no one is going to read this. I thought, if I'm really lucky, 5,000 people will read this book. But they'll be the right people."
Part of the novel's magic was See's fascinating depiction of two nearly forgotten Chinese customs: the secret women's language of nu shu, and foot-binding, a gruesomely painful custom in which mothers would break their daughter's feet to reconfigure them in a smaller, daintier shape. See likens the practice to our society's current fixation on breast enhancement.
"Breast implants are now a big high school graduation gift," she says. "It's that same thing. Who's giving that gift? Mothers to daughters. At its core, it's to make her more marriageable. I live in L.A., so there are a lot of men walking around with women with these big plastic things on their chests."
Having already uncovered the lost worlds of nu shu, foot-binding and lovesick maidens, what's left for See to explore? In her next book, she'll write about the Chinese-American experience through the eyes of two girls sent to California from Shanghai for arranged marriages. See views it as a chance to write about the rapidly disappearing Los Angeles of her youth.
On a recent visit to L.A.'s Chinatown, she discovered that the community in which she grew up is already changing, with shops and buildings closing or being demolished.
"They were so much a part of my identity and who I am," she says wistfully. "In five to 10 years I won't have any more ties to Chinatown. I've been kind of reeling from it, actually. This book is about people and places that disappear."
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.
Author photo by Patricia Williams.