Peony in Love, Lisa See, Random House Inc, 2007, 284 pp
I can unreservedly say that I loved this book. It is even better than Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I don't know why it didn't sell as well. Perhaps because the main character is a ghost for most of the story. Ghost stories of any kind rarely seem to stay on any bestseller list for long.
Peony is a young Chinese girl from a wealthy family in the 17th century. A new dynasty has taken over and the country is in turmoil politically and socially. For women, this means a chance for some unusual freedoms. On her birthday, her doting father presents a showing of the famous opera, The Peony Pavilion, a story of romantic love. Though Peony is already betrothed by custom to a man she has never seen, she is just at the age of romantic love and sexual longing.
She breaks several taboos and meets a young poet. They fall deeply in love but it is all a secret and of course tragedy strikes. As does the heroine in the opera, Peony gets the "love sickness," is unable to eat and dies. Due to various circumstances, her burial is not properly done and she is left to wander as a "hungry ghost" watching over her lover and trying desperately to re-enact the story in the opera.
It is a dramatic and touching tale. Peony comes to an understanding with the mother who kept her trapped and obedient while Peony was growing up. In fact, she comes to understand women, men, art, literature and how to determine her own destiny. There are wonderful scenes where women writers gather to discuss literature, which are like the world's first reading groups. As usual, in a Lisa See novel, the reader learns much about the traditions and culture of China. Though it is a tragedy, Peony in Love has a happy and satisfying ending. This is Lisa See's best book so far.