Peony lives in a world where dynasty change has occurred and everyone is still adjusting. By that I mean the men are adjusting and the women are continuing to live inside even though they had a brief time where they could travel and, gasp, write books that would actually get published and read.
Peony is an only child in love with an opera called the Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (which is a real opera). Her father gave her a love of reading and learning which perhaps was not the most useful thing for a wife back then.
"Had you been a son," Baba went on, "You would have made an excellent imperial scholar, perhaps the best our family have ever seen." He meant it as a compliment and I took it that way, but I could hear regret in his voice too. I was not a son and never would be."
Her father stages a showing of the opera in their family gardens and the women get to hear it while hidden behind a screen. Through a crack in the screen, Peony sees a very handsome man who then runs into her in the garden, something very improper. The poet, Ren, and Peony meet for three days and then the opera is over and Peony must face that fact that she is to be married out.
"I will follow the course my father sets for me, but all girls have dreams, even if our destinies are set."
She becomes obsessed with the Peony Pavilion and sees herself as the woman in the opera who loves even after death and is then brought back to life through the power of love. Peony neglects to take care of herself, eat and eventually dies while working on her commentary of the Peony Pavilion.
"Everyday I see it and I don't know what to do. Literacy is a grave threat to the female sex. Too often I've seen the health and happiness of young women fade because they will not give up their brush and ink."
The rest of the book follows Peony's afterlife as she attempts to watch over Ren and learns more about the women in her family. Because Peony's tablet was not dotted correctly, her spirit is not at rest and she fears that she will remain a hungry ghost for all time.
One thing that I really liked was that in the afterlife Peony meets a group of other girls who all died young after becoming obsessed with the Peony Pavilion. It reminded me of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Wurther where young men were killing themselves for the romantic gesture of the thing. Thankfully, Kate Beaton did a little comic which illustrates (clikc her name for a larger version):
Ren goes on to have two other wives and Peony is there, watching and trying her best to make him happy for she just loves him so much. And while I personally would have haunted the crap out of Tan Ze (Peony's old friend who is Ren's second wife), Peony does seem to have Ren's happiness at the heart of all she does.
This book has some interesting insights into how women slowly became more accepted as poets and writers, but I was not as enthralled with this one as with Snow Flower. I still would recommend this book, but if given the choice stick with Snow Flower.
Also side note - I've got a poll up for what my next big classic read should be! So far Bleak House is winning but you should totally check out the other options and vote. Do me a solid!