By Jennifer Reese
Updated June 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Peony in Love

You can read Lisa See’s novels for their emotionally wrenching feminist story lines. Or for the exquisite detail with which she writes about daily life in bygone China, as in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, her popular 2005 portrait of a passionate friendship between two 19th-century women.

See reaches back even further in time for Peony in Love, a supernatural soap set among upper-crust families in the mid-1600s. Theirs is an excruciatingly formal society where recipes and rules govern every human activity. Jealous lovers sip broth made from oriole bones; men are aroused by the scent (yes, scent) of bound feet; and well-bred girls are expected to spend their cloistered days perfecting the zither. Such a girl is narrator Peony, a beauty of 15 betrothed to a stranger. ”My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher,” Peony writes in the archaic language See favors. Peony, loosely based on a noted female writer, is also brainy and bookish. One fateful evening in her family’s compound, she meets a friend of her father’s, a ”man-beautiful” poet with liberal ideals. Strolling around the Riding-the-Wind Pavilion, the two discuss literature and fall hopelessly in love.

Hopelessly, since Peony is promptly locked up in her bedroom to await her marriage. In seclusion, she writes obsessively, swears off food, and, five days before her dreaded wedding, dies. (As See relates in her afterword, many Chinese girls found that starvation was the only control they had over their lives.)

With death, Peony’s life and See’s novel begin in earnest. Like the heroine of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavilion, Peony is reborn as a ghost. In her case, an erotically playful, restless, occasionally malicious spirit who is, at last, free to roam the world and exercise her abilities. It is a poignant comment on the culture that this girl can only truly live after she dies, but also something of a narrative misstep. For a novel so deeply rooted in the ways women struggled for creative expression within a byzantine set of social constraints, Peony’s early release instantly erases one of the most compelling reasons to read. B-