Book bits

A review of "Peony in Love," hardcover bestseller list, a column of readers' picks

Peony in Love, by Lisa See

Opera buffs of the world, meet Peony Chen. An educated, pampered 18th-century girl, the protagonist of Peony in Love (the new novel by Lisa See, author of the bestselling "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"), spends her days poring over texts of "The Peony Pavilion," a Chinese opera about love so strong it brought the dead back to life.

When her dad directs a three-day opera at the family villa, Peony and the other women watch through a crack in a screen. That night, while wandering in the garden, Peony comes across a young poet and falls in love. This is a major no-no for an unmarried maiden. Afterward, Peony's obsession deepens, and she literally wastes away, refusing food and constantly scribbling notes.

After she starves, she discovers that she had been betrothed to her poet all along, and she's done herself out of a life of happiness. Doomed to wander the earth as a "hungry ghost," she haunts her poet's new wife, and takes up her pen as a literal ghost writer.

In a culture where girls met their husbands on their wedding day, romantic love had a hold unimaginable on these young Chinese women. A number of them really did die after becoming obsessed with the opera, See explains in an afterword. As in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," See meticulously presents what it meant to be a woman when the Qings overthrew the Ming Dynasty. Many took advantage of the upheaval to leave their inner chambers, and "more women writers were being published in China's Yangzi Delta than in all the rest of the world at that time."

Unfortunately, much of the action in this novel takes place in the afterworld, which proves difficult to research. See presents Chinese superstitions of the 18th century as fact, which modern audiences may have difficulty swallowing. And Peony, it must be said, is a bit of a twit.

Despite the supernatural trappings, "Peony in Love" is a less engrossing experience than "Snow Flower," in which friendship between two lonely girls was the only magic necessary.– Yvonne Zipp Rooms, with photographs by Derry Moore and text by Carl Skoggard. Moore, a renowned English photographer, has been shooting interiors for 25 years. The ones in this book, all shot in natural light, include those of Rudolf Nureyev in Paris; Lady Diana Cooper in London; and the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, India. Gorgeous, evocative pictures with a Proustian text.
Wendy Moonan, New York

I recently finished Heather Lende's, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. It is a collection of stories about the people of Haines, Alaska. Beyond the stories are wonderful insights into living a full and satisfying life.
Joe Call, Fairfax, Va.

Blood Red Snow, by Gunter K. Koschorrekan is an autobiographical account of the siege of Stalingrad during World War II. The German infantry soldier recorded his day-to-day notes on any scrap of paper he could find during the battle.
Sandra Maidment, Torrington, Conn.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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