April 11, 2010

Currently Reading/Making:

Right now I'm about halfway through "Peony in Love" by Lisa See. I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and loved her first book "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan". See does her research impeccably, and puts such detail about the daily lives of women in China at the time the book takes place. That part is truly fascinating. I love hearing about the rituals surrounding marriage and death, and the insight into Chinese philosophy.

The first part of the book - it's divided into sections - I almost stopped reading it because I really wanted to smack the main character. I don't want to give the book away too much but essentially the plot of the book centers around Peony, a 16 year old girl in China, who is engaged to be wed. She is obsessed with the opera "The Peony Pavilion", which is about a young girl who meets a man in a dream, falls in love with him and then pines away for him, starving herself to death. He in turn dreams of her, and falls in love also, and finally meets her spirit and has a 'ghost marriage' and brings her back to life. Peony sees a young man at a performance of the aforementioned opera, and though it is strictly forbidden, she meets with him and talks with him for 3 days. During these 3 days, she falls in love, and in a case of life imitating art, becomes depressed that she is now in love with a man she can not marry, and must marry someone she does not love, and starves herself to death like the girl in the opera through her obsession.


Now, I'm a practical sort of gal, and killing yourself over a man that you talked to for what probably amounted to an hour over 3 days of your young life seems overblown, ridiculous and frankly, stupid. Her anguish and constant dreaming about "her poet" seemed unreal to me. Is this what normal 16 year old girls are like? I don't know. I wasn't pretty nor dreamy when I was 16, and therefore had neither the opportunity nor desire to become lost in lovesickness. Which is what the book called it. Apparently many young girls starved themselves to death after reading this opera. It's romantic themes were considered dangerous for that reason and it was banned. Girls and women were banned from seeing or hearing it performed. I wonder though if they were not just depressed that they lived lives where they had no choice about anything, where they were considered more than useless - burdens on the family. Even their bodies were not theirs to control - their feet were bound by their families as children. By starving themselves they regained control over their bodies, and found freedom in death, though according to Chinese tradition of ancestor worship, they would have very miserable afterlives as "hungry ghosts", as they are not considered part of their parents family, nor did they have sons to take care of their spectral needs.

My wondering was at this modern ideal of her heartbreak at being married to someone she didn't love. This was not the norm in that time and place. Why then was she so depressed about it? The author implies if not states full out that is was because of the opera, but that seems far fetched to me. I don't know.

The second part of the book I'm finding much better. Now Peony is a ghost, and she's matured somewhat from the naive, silly lovesick girl. In death, as See would have us believe, you can see things you wouldn't be able to in life. Also, her ancestors help her connect the dots of her own life. We'll see how it gets on.

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