Peony in Love was, well, more the story of how a girlish obsession could turn into a one-note bit of character development. Sadly, Peony is a boring young lady, rich and well-bred, and betrothed to a rather mushy-headed young man. They meet once, never once trading identities (it’s once a night for three nights, actually, but they do so little they could have done it all in one night) and based on that, Peony is In Love. Her mild obsession with the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion” pops out in full force, and she begins to skip meals and self-care, becoming a “lovesick maiden.” Since this is 15th century China or thereabouts, she dies of “lovesickness” and yeah. She’s much more interesting as a ghost, though, but she never actually develops into a character. She’s just a pile of longing for “her poet.”
Other women carry the tale interesting places, but not for long and not far enough. Tan Ze, Wu Ren’s second wife, is a bitter and jealous mess who is manipulated by Peony’s ghost. Qian Yi, Wu Ren’s third wife, is only present for like 30 pages. Peony’s mother and grandmother illustrate the perils of being a Chinese woman during the revolutionary period (the Manchus, I believe, were ousted from the throne and replaced, or they did the replacing.) The closest the book comes to a climax is in the portions where Peony and her mother work together to change Qian Yi’s life. It wasn’t hard to follow the story and there were tons of historical facts stitching the story together – the fault was almost entirely characterization. Short of Tan Ze, none of the women in the story wanted very much and they went through entirely ridiculous hoops to get even that. (And Tan Ze comes with trigger warnings for those who don’t like to read nonconsensual sex or about pregnancy loss.) We never leave Peony’s point of view, either.
The majority of this little Chinese ghost story is comprised of shifting between houses to find out what people are doing now that Peony is dead. It’s just not enough story from just Peony’s angle, and all the revelations in the tale come far too late to help develop the character or plot. It’s a short book, and the culture in it was fascinating, but I think it was just not enough for me. I would have liked Peony to be a member of the literary groups of women in China in that period rather than a very traditional ghost. The story does contain a group of these women, the Banana Garden Five (I think Garden) and while Peony accompanies them (as a ghost) the story doesn’t go into detail there and the experience doesn’t change Peony.
Peony Grows a Backbone or Curious Peony would have been better stories.