I have wanted to read more of See’s work since finishing her gorgeous Snow Flower and The Secret Fan earlier this year. I was expecting something along the same lines if I’m honest, with constantly beautiful writing, characters I felt sympathy for, and a wonderfully crafted sense of times past in the fascinating country of China.
When beginning Peony in Love however, I found that it did not pull me in as much as the aforementioned novel, and I even began to get a little discontented with it as I reached the second part. The writing was relatively nice – an insipid word, but sadly I can pay no higher compliment – but something about the narrative voice made it feel a lot more modern on the whole than it should have. It was supposed to be the account of a young girl living in 16th century China, and on occasion it read like an overexcited and thoroughly modern teenager had penned it. I did not like Peony, our narrator and protagonist, at all. She was incredibly self-important, and whilst she acted as though she was so grown up, she was in reality very naive. Peony had the kind of youthful arrogance which really puts me off in novels (though I do adore Holden Caulfield – go figure). I suppose we can put See’s portrayal of Peony partly down to the teenage condition, but she very much overdid this element of the plot in my eyes.
The period of history which See addresses in Peony in Love is fascinating, but I do not feel that it is explored as well as it could have been. As in Snow Flower…, the foot-binding scenes made me feel rather sick. With regard to the history presented, I felt that some of the characters clashed a little with their social backdrop. We are told why several of the protagonists act in the ways in which they do after a while, but I still struggle to believe that someone in 16th century China would be so unfailingly rude to her husband as Peony’s mother is.
Overall, I found Peony in Love to be rather an odd tale, and a thoroughly unexpected one. On the face of it, it is a love story, but elements of it are rather creepy. The cultural history which See portrays is fascinating but horrendously brutal, and I only wish she had made more of it within the novel.