In the opening decades of the Manchu Dynasty, Chinese aristocrats feared an epidemic of lovesickness among their daughters. Under the influence of a romantic opera called The Peony Pavilion, girls were literally wasting away, much like the sensitive European youths who later mooned over Goethe's The Sorrows Of Young Werther. Taking as her inspiration the 1694 commentary on the opera written by three successive wives of a poet, novelist Lisa See has created a love story that begins in the pure fire of adolescent passion, but takes an unpredictable route to inspiring proto-feminism.
Fifteen-year-old Peony has been obsessed with The Peony Pavilion for years, thanks to her indulgent father. Only a few months before her arranged marriage, she has a chance to see the opera for the first time, if only through the seams of the screen segregating the women from ordinary mortals. But three forbidden encounters with a handsome stranger—one for each night of the opera's performance—lead Peony to succumb to the love exemplified by her fictional role model. Sacrificing food, company, and all ordinary pursuits, Peony records her insights about love as marginalia in the opera's libretto, but she does not realize how far she has retreated from the world. As the novel's first section ends, so does the romance, at least among the living; Peony succumbs to her lovesickness and becomes, to her horror, a hungry ghost, unable to progress into the afterworld due to her family's neglect of the proper ancestral rites.
As the novel takes its bold turn from historical realism to ghost story, See remains immersed in the complete reality—spiritual, political, social, and physical—of her richly detailed setting. In Peony's pathetic fate, it's possible to feel the internal logic of traditional ancestor worship, even as See selectively deconstructs some of that realm's customs by denying the character the satisfaction she seeks. Only by helping to empower her successors, giving all of them together a voice through the written word, does she discover womanhood, many years after her own death. While Peony's narration of her postmortem experiences suffers somewhat from her inability to engage in dialogue, the momentum created by her interrupted life sustains the novel to its uplifting conclusion. Grown-up romantics will not only swoon over Peony's tragedy, they'll also close the book with food for thought.