Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lisa See's "Peony in Love"

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new novel, Peony in Love, and reported the following:
My page 99 comes with a huge spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know an important twist in Peony in Love, stop reading now!

That said, I love my page 99. If this had been about page 98, I would have been out of luck, since in the final printed book that’s a blank page between parts one and two. At the end of part one, Peony, who’s been suffering from a bad case of lovesickness, thinks she’s being prepared for her wedding by being bathed, dressed, and carried in a procession to the front of her family’s compound. In fact, her family has been preparing her for death and have abandoned her outside to die, since it’s unlucky for unmarried daughters to expire inside the family home. From birth, a daughter belongs to her husband’s family. She’s raised by her natal family for her husband’s family. If she doesn’t live long enough to marry and go to her husband’s home, she’s apt to become a hungry ghost – a soul unable to complete its journey to the afterworld and instead wanders the earth causing havoc in a never-ending search for food and sustenance. No one wants a ghost lingering in the household, not even if she was once a precious daughter.

Page 99 is a “Sixth Sense” moment, when everything that happened in the previous chapters becomes clear. Many readers are completely shocked by Peony’s death; others have followed and understood exactly what’s been happening to Peony even as she was completely deluded and confused.

As I sat down to write Peony in Love, I knew she was going to die and that she would become a ghost. I wanted that to happen early as possible, because I really wanted to write from the perspective of a ghost. Nevertheless, readers wouldn’t have cared about Peony’s plight as a hungry ghost unless they cared about her as a living girl first. The challenge for me was to balance those two imperatives. I kept telling myself, She has to be dead by page 100. I made it by one page. Not bad…

Part II

Roaming with the Wind

The Separated Soul

I died in the seventh hour on the seventh day of the twelfth month in the third year of Emperor Kangxi’s reign. I was just five days from my wedding. In those first moments of death, much of what had happened in the last few weeks and days became clear to me. Obviously I had no idea I was dying, but my mother had understood it when she first entered my room after not seeing me for so long. When I’d gone to the Spring Pavilion, my cousins, my aunts, and the concubines had tried to get me to eat, recognizing I was already starving myself. In my final days, I’d been obsessed with writing just as Liniang had been obsessed with painting her self-portrait. I’d thought my poems had emerged from love, but deep inside I think I knew I was dying. What the body knows and what the mind chooses to believe are two different things, after all. Baba had come to give me the peony because I was dying and the proprieties didn’t matter anymore; I’d been happy to find out I was marrying my poet, but I was too close to death to recover. I had tried to kowtow to my parents, believing I was going to my wedding. They probably saw me as trying to emulate Liniang’s actions at her death.

The drapes in my room had been taken down not for me to take to my new home but because they resembled fishing nets and my family didn’t want me to be reborn as a fish. My father told me about my uncles, because he wanted me to carry a message to them in the afterworld. “One day you may meet them,” he’d said. He couldn’t have been more direct than that, and yet I hadn’t understood. My family had placed taro around me. Taro is carried by a bride to her new home, but it is also offered to the dead to ensure future sons and grandsons. Tradition demands that an unmarried girl be taken outside when there is “only one breath left.” But how can anyone gauge these things? At least I wasn’t a baby when I died. I would have been left to be eaten by dogs or buried in a shallow grave and quickly forgotten.
Read an excerpt from Peony in Love and learn more about the book and its author at Lisa See's website.

--Marshal Zeringue