This has got to be one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I couldn’t put it down. In seventeenth century China, fifteen-year-old Peony is betrothed to someone she doesn’t know. One evening, Peony meets and falls in love with a man whom she calls “her poet,” for he loves poetry as much as she. But as she’s already betrothed, she becomes distraught and withdrawn, refusing to eat, and stays in bed all day to read a romantic opera, called The Peony Pavilion. Just like in her beloved opera, the lovesick maiden, Peony, wastes away, and starves herself to death. But in the moments leading up to her death, she learns that the man to whom she was betrothed was actually… her poet. This is just the beginning of the book Peony In Love, by Lisa See.
Peony continues to narrate the novel from the Chinese afterlife. Because her family forgets to perform a crucial burial task, she is sentenced to live as a Hungry Ghost, wandering the earth, condemned to watch as the husband with whom she’d have happily lived out her life now takes on new wives. While she cannot be seen or heard, Peony is able to set moods and intentions, to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the living. In this way, she tries to communicate her continuing affections to her would-be husband, and also influences his next wives to be kind to him, and to finish her written commentary on her beloved Peony Pavilion opera, which she’d begun before her death.
As Peony’s story unfolds, her fate directly parallels the fate of the leading lady in The Peony Pavilion. Also relevant to this story is a famous, real-life commentary of the opera called The Three Wives’ Commentary (1694), written by the three consecutive wives of Wu Ren. It was the first published book of its kind to have been written by women. Peony In Love is author Lisa See’s imaginative retelling of how this commentary came to be written, having Peony dictating, as a ghost, the rest of her unfinished commentary to her husband’s two consecutive wives. This is overall a very sad story, although one could say it ends happily.