Peony in Love: A Novel (Random House Large Print)

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9780739327296: Peony in Love: A Novel (Random House Large Print)
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“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

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About the Author:

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit the author’s website: www.LisaSee.com.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau
at www.apbspeakers.com  

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from Chapter 1- Riding the Wind

Two days before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up
so early that my maid was still asleep on the floor at the foot of
my bed. I should have scolded Willow, but I didn’t because I
wanted a few moments alone to savor my excitement. Beginning tonight,
I would attend a production of The Peony Pavilion mounted in our garden.
I loved this opera and had collected eleven of the thirteen printed versions
available. I liked to lie in bed and read of the maiden Liniang and her
dream lover, their adventures, and their ultimate triumph. But for three
nights, culminating on Double Seven–the seventh day of the seventh
month, the day of the lovers’ festival, and my birthday–I would actually
see the opera, which was normally forbidden to girls and women. My father
had invited other families for the festivities. We’d have contests and
banquets. It was going to be amazing.
Willow sat up and rubbed her eyes. When she saw me staring at her,
she scrambled to her feet and offered good wishes. I felt another flutter of
anticipation, so I was particular when Willow bathed me, helped me into
a gown of lavender silk, and brushed my hair. I wanted to look perfect; I
wanted to act perfectly.
A girl on the edge of sixteen knows how pretty she is, and as I looked
in the mirror I burned with the knowledge. My hair was black and silky.
When Willow brushed it, I felt the strokes from the top of my head all the
way down my back. My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows
were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher. My cheeks glowed
the pale pink of a peony petal. My father and mother liked to comment on
how appropriate this was, because my name was Peony. I tried, as only a
young girl can, to live up to the delicateness of my name. My lips were full
and soft. My waist was small and my breasts were ready for a husband’s
touch. I wouldn’t say I was vain. I was just a typical fifteen-year-old girl. I
was secure in my beauty but had enough wisdom to know it was only
fleeting.
My parents adored me and made sure I was educated–highly educated.
I lived a rarefied and precious existence, in which I arranged flowers,
looked pretty, and sang for my parents’ entertainment. I was so
privileged that even my maid had bound feet. As a small girl, I believed
that all the gatherings we held and all the treats we ate during Double
Seven were a celebration for me. No one corrected my mistake, because I
was loved and very, very spoiled. I took a breath and let it out slowly–
happy. This would be my last birthday at home before I married out, and I
was going to enjoy every minute.
I left my room in the Unmarried Girls’ Hall and headed in the direction
of our ancestral hall to make offerings to my grandmother. I’d spent
so much time getting ready that I made a quick obeisance. I didn’t want to
be late for breakfast. My feet couldn’t take me as fast as I wanted to go, but
when I saw my parents sitting together in a pavilion overlooking the garden,
I slowed. If Mama was late, I could be late too.
“Unmarried girls should not be seen in public,” I heard my mother say.
“I’m even concerned for my sisters-in-law. You know I don’t encourage
private excursions. Now to bring outsiders in for this performance . . .”
She let her voice trail off. I should have hurried on, but the opera
meant so much to me that I stayed, lingering out of sight behind the
twisted trunks of a wisteria vine.
“There is no public here,” Baba said. “This will not be some open affair
where women disgrace themselves by sitting among men. You will be hidden
behind screens.”
“But outside men will be within our walls. They may see our stockings
and shoes beneath the screen. They may smell our hair and powder. And
of all the operas, you have chosen one about a love affair that no unmarried
girl should hear!”
My mother was old-fashioned in her beliefs and her behavior. In the
social disorder that followed the Cataclysm, when the Ming dynasty fell
and the Manchu invaders took power, many elite women enjoyed leaving
their villas to travel the waterways in pleasure boats, write about what they
saw, and publish their observations. Mama was completely against things
like that. She was a loyalist–still dedicated to the overthrown Ming emperor–
but she was excessively traditional in other ways. When many
women in the Yangzi delta were reinterpreting the Four Virtues–virtue,
demeanor, speech, and work–my mother constantly chided me to remember
their original meaning and intent. “Hold your tongue at all
times,” she liked to say. “But if you must speak, wait until there is a good
moment. Do not offend anyone.”
My mother could get very emotional about these things because she
was governed by qing: sentiment, passion, and love. These forces tie together
the universe and stem from the heart, the seat of consciousness.
My father, on the other hand, was ruled by li–cold reason and mastered
emotions–and he snorted indifferently at her concern that strangers were
coming.
“You don’t complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”
“But my daughter and my nieces aren’t in the garden when they’re
here! There’s no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other
families you’ve invited?”
“You know why I invited them,” he spat out sharply, his patience gone.
“Commissioner Tan is important to me right now. Do not argue further
with me on this!”
I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden
severity; she didn’t speak.
Mama managed the inner realm, and she always kept fish-shaped locks
of beaten metal hidden in the folds of her skirts in case she needed to secure
a door to punish a concubine, preserve bolts of silk that had arrived
from one of our factories for home use, or protect the pantry, the curtainweaving
quarters, or the room set aside for our servants to pawn their belongings
when they needed extra money. That she never used a lock
unjustly had earned her added respect and gratitude from those who
resided in the women’s chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at
this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.
Baba’s flash of anger was replaced by a conciliatory tone he often took
with my mother. “No one will see our daughter or our nieces. All the proprieties
will be maintained. This is a special occasion. I must be gracious
in my dealings. If we open our doors this one time, other doors may soon
open.”
“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.
I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadn’t understood all
that had been said, but I really didn’t care. What mattered was that the
opera would still be performed in our garden, and my cousins and I would
be the first girls in all Hangzhou to see it. Of course we would not be out
among the men. We would sit behind screens so no one could see us, as
my father said.
By the time Mama entered the Spring Pavilion for breakfast, she had
regained her usual composure.
“It doesn’t show good breeding for girls to eat too quickly,” she cautioned
my cousins and me as she passed our table. “Your mothers-in-law
will not want to see you eat like hungry carp in a pond–mouths open
with yearning–when you move to your husbands’ homes. That said, we
should be ready when our guests arrive.”
So we ate as hurriedly as we could and still appear to be proper young
ladies.
As soon as the servants cleared the dishes, I approached my mother.
“May I go to the front gate?” I asked, hoping to greet our guests.
“Yes, on your wedding day,” she responded, smiling fondly as she always
did when I asked a stupid question.
I waited patiently, knowing that palanquins were now being brought
over our main threshold and into the Sitting-Down Hall, where our visitors
would get out and drink tea before entering the main part of the compound.
From there, the men would go to the Hall of Abundant Elegance,
where my father would receive them. The women would come to our
quarters, which lay at the back of the compound, protected from the eyes
of all men.
Eventually, I heard the lilting voices of women as they neared. When
my mother’s two sisters and their daughters arrived, I reminded myself to
be modest in appearance, behavior, and movement. A couple of my aunts’
sisters came next, followed by several of my father’s friends’ wives. The
most important of these was Madame Tan, the wife of the man my father
had mentioned in his argument with my mother. (The Manchus had recently
given her husband a high appointment as Commissioner of Imperial
Rites.) She was tall and very thin. Her young daughter, Tan Ze, looked
around eagerly. A wave of jealousy washed over me. I had never been outside
the Chen Family Villa. Did Commissioner Tan let his daughter pass
through their family’s front gate very often?
Kisses. Hugs. The exchange of gifts of fresh figs, jars of Shaoxing rice
wine, and tea made from jasmine flowers. Showing the women and their
daughters to their rooms. Unpacking. Changing from traveling costumes
to fresh gowns. More kisses. More hugs. A few tears and lots of laughter.
Then we moved to the Lotus-Blooming Hall, our main women’s gathering
place, where the ceiling was high, shaped like a fish tail, and supported
by round posts painted black. Windows and carved doors looked out into
a private garden on one s...

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