After a few more fantastical jaunts, lots of fantasy and speculative fiction in the past few months I wanted something a little bit more grounded. So, I picked up Peony In Love, I’d read and enjoyed Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls a few years back and it had been a while since I’d dove into some real high grade historical fiction you know?
And as I read the first sixty pages of Peony, I was thrilled! Oh my god! It was a story about a young woman in 17th century china who’s obsessed with The Peony Pavillion, a tragic romantic opera, and how she falls in love for the first time on the eve of her wedding.
This was so up my alley! When I assembled my “things I like,” list when asking for recomendations, “historical fiction that bends to romance,” was one of my top descriptors. Then, about sixty pages in, Peony dies, and we follow her into the afterlife.
It took a few days for me to recalibrate and continue on because I was so disappointed. I’d just read a whole book about grappling with life after death and heaven and hell and wanted some transportive realistic historical narrative damnit!
But once I got past my annoyance that the book wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I really enjoyed it. Peony is an interesting narrator in both life and death, and the exploration of the Chinese afterlife, and the rituals surrounding it were fascinating. Peony looking in on her husband and his next two wives as she learns how to be a ghost makes up most of the story, but it’s heart is in learning the secrets of the women who died before her. Her mother and grandmother, other female intellectuals who studied The Peony Pavillion, even the vengeful spirit of her husband’s second wife.
It’s a pretty special book, but know what you’re getting into. I like See’s style, and I think I’ll seek her out more. Growing up, some of my favorite reading was always historical fiction, because it gave me a window into places and people I would never see. I especially loved historical fiction about other cultures, because I’d really likely never see that.
Up next is The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which was actually way down the list, but I know that’s just some straight historical fiction, because I watched the movie! (The movie has Lily James and Jessica Brown Findley, as two women who wind up occupying the same space in different times, which, as a Downton Fan is the most glorious meta flourish in anything ever!)