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Friday, March 20, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Peony in Love

This week we had our discussion group at the Berwyn Public Library. We discussed Lisa See's Peony in Love. I first read this book in December of 2007 and wrote about it here, including some suggested read alikes.

Peony in Love, recounts the story of a young, Chinese girl in the 1500s, named Peony, who starves herself to death, rather than be forced to "marry out." Except, here it turns out she knew and loved the man she was betrothed to. What follows is a story of how ghosts live in the Chinese after world, how Peony is able to find peace for herself and her love, and how she manges to become a famous female poet whose voice is finally heard.

Most of our group enjoyed the book. The two who did not were turned off by the ghost story and/or how terrible women were treated (even though it was based in fact, it was to much for one participant to take). A few participants mentioned how they would have never read this book on their own, but they were glad the did for the discussion.

Overall, everyone did agree that See's writing is beautiful. The language was as lyrical as the opera which is constantly referred to. In fact, a few wished they got more info about the opera in the novel. For those people I have this link.

One woman in the group is the godmother of a girl adopted from China, and she had some experience with the Chinese customers involving ancestors, but she loved how this novel made the Chinese beliefs and customers about the after world very concrete. The group agreed that See took what are complex, and unfamiliar (to us) customs and made them clear. In general, the group has a fascination with Chinese culture and history, and we were happy with this novel's depictions of it.

We did spend a great deal of time talking about the role of women in society, both then and now. How different was Peony's love sickness from girls with anorexia today? We decided they are one and the same. Both are about young girls longing to have control of something in their lives. See also illustrates the domestic world of the women as one filled with jealousy and back biting. Again, we thought that was similar to women's experiences today. One participant argued that all the back biting is a way for women to have power in a world where they are powerless. If you are not heard, you pick on small things.

We continued talking about how much and, surprisingly, how little the role of women in society has changed.

We also talked about See's characterizations. First, Peony is not a completely sympathetic character. By the end we are rooting for her, but she has a lot of maturing to do before we were all behind her. One participant pointed out how See took her time with each character. She would present each as almost perfect, then knock them down, showing major faults, but then allow each to rebuild themselves in our eyes, ending up somewhere in the middle at the end. We all felt this added reality to her characters, which we enjoyed.

If you want to read more by Lisa See, click here.

Also, if you want to see my read alike suggestions for Peony in Love, click here.

Next month we are reading Studs Terkel's last book, P.S.

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