“So many mistakes. So many errors. So much tragedy as a result. In that moment I understood that the cruellest words in the universe are if only.”
I can see why some readers might find the main character in this story, Peony, a little irritating. She is immature and takes everything at face value, much to her detriment, and its understandable why someone reading her story might feel like screaming at her to pull herself together.
But my empathy for her won through. As a young girl in 17th century China, Peony is governed by her family and by tradition, and is overcome with emotion when she views an opera deemed to be inappropriate for young women. This is the nature of her troubles – she lives in a world steeped in tradition and is a little obsessed with the idea of romantic love. She has never known any different. Her fate is one that seemingly befell many young girls in China, and her story is based on true events. Peony falls in love at first sight with a man she does not know; only to find out she has been betrothed to another man as equally unknown to her. She doesn’t know what to do, and it is at this point in the story that everything changes.
“My love for him had never gone away but only changed, growing deeper like wine fermenting or pickles curing. It bore into me with the pervasiveness of water working its way to the centre of a mountain.”
I don’t want to give too much away, but this beginning part of the story, though central to Peony’s fate, doesn’t give any clue as to the mature and repentant woman that she becomes. This is a book about love – for a husband, for a family, for other women in the same circumstances – that goes far beyond the life of a lovesick girl, and indeed goes far beyond life itself. I found this book to be beautifully written (if a little too much in a 21st century style for a book steeped in so much tradition and history). I loved the descriptions of Chinese traditions and their beliefs concerning the afterlife – the desperation felt by Peony as she sees the man she loved getting on with his life really pulls at the heart strings, and the character grows from an immature young girl, to a bitter spirit, to a woman who really tries to make amends.
By the end of this story, I couldn’t have been more desperate myself for Peony to be at peace with the decisions she had made. This could easily have been just another soppy love story, which I wouldn’t have enjoyed in the slightest, but it twisted and turned and developed into so much more.
“When people are alive they love, when they die, they keep loving. If love ends when person dies, that is not real love”