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Peony: A Novel of China
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204 of 208 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
"Peony" is a subtle, quiet novel - an excellent example of Pearl Buck's elegant and dignified style. Based on true events, the novel chronicles the life of Peony, a bondmaid who was sold to a wealthy Chinese/Jewish family. "Peony" can be considered a work of historical fiction, as Ms. Buck's excellent research provides accurate and extremely interesting information on Jews in China.
The story takes place over a century ago in K'aifeng, the home of the largest Jewish colony in China. At the time, Jews were rapidly assimilating into Chinese society and culture, and losing their Jewish identity. "Peony" tells the story of one particularly prominent Jewish family through the eyes of the ethnic Chinese bondmaid, and how the problem of assimilation effects each family member individually. The topic - Jewish identity in China - is fascinating and not commonly discussed.
Ms. Buck's amazing ability to create depth of character is in strong evidence in "Peony," and all of the characters are extremely well developed and realistic. While the story incorporates a historic element, it also includes interesting subplots of unrequited love, familial strife, and the age-old Chinese (and Jewish) concept of filial duty and respect.
This book is indicative of Pearl Buck's genius and gift for storytelling. Ms. Buck doesn't need to resort to hyperbole to get her point across - the words are carefully chosen and the story is beautifully constructed. Her writing style is gorgeous and evocative. The author's famous love for China and its many cultures is evident in her delicate prose - she treats the characters and the plot with utmost respect and historical accuracy. The beauty of China and the Chinese and Jewish cultures are done tremendous justice by this lovely book.
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94 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2004
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I accidentally found "Peony" while I was trying to find a book that would teach me how to grow peonies. The title, the topic and Buck's reputation helped me decide to read it. I am so glad that I did.

Other reviewers have told of the understated, beautiful use of language. They have spoken of the interesting juxtaposition of the Jewish and Chinese cultures, the gentleness of the story, and Buck's decision not to satisfy our need for a Hollywood ending.

All of these wonderful aspects allowed me to focus on other layers of the novel. The fact that the Jewish community in Kaifeng eventually allowed themselves to forget their own culture was fascinating. Their acceptance of and integration into the Chinese culture is portrayed as inexorable. Most slipped away easily; others faced the loss with overwhelming grief. Buck describes the Chinese characters in this book as being accepting of others while being a bit hedonistic themselves. They choose to seek pleasure and temporal fullfillment while the Jews focus on the horror of oppression, complex ritual and the absolute truth of their history and destiny. In other words, it seemed that the Jews were willing to give up their faith because it was difficult to maintain personally and for the community as a whole.

The final destruction of the core of the Jewish community is, ironically, a product of being a "chosen people." Kao Lien (a business associate of the Ezra family) tells David ben Ezra (Peony's young master) that the Jews, "were hated because they separated themselves from the rest of mankind. They called themselves chosen of God." This is David's first inkling that the world has alternate views of the Jewish people. This is a pivotable moment in the novel. This conversation gives David enough distance from his own culture to allow him to choose a Chinese wife and to move farther from the religion of his mother. Because he chooses not to become a leader of the Jews in his city, the Temple and the culture eventually fall into ruin.

More than most novels, this one is a rare combination of attributes. It is entertaining, informative, thought provoking and good literature. I will certainly read more of Buck's work and urge others to read this novel.
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86 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This is the story of Jews in Kaifeng, China, blended with a good love story and a saga of a family. The novel is set around the time of the Opium Wars (ca 1840) with creative license taken with some of the historical timeline.

This is also a love story--a romance set in an exotic historical setting. The impossible love of Peony for her young master, David, and the love triangle between David, Leah, the daughter of the rabbi, and Kueilan, the pretty but frivolous daughter of Ezra's business partner makes for plenty of romantic conflict. The novel cleverly tells the tale of a prominent Jewish family struggling to retain their identity, yet having for several generations married Chinese wives and becoming slowly absorbed into Chinese culture.

The language Pearl Buck uses is clever; if you've read "The Good Earth: she keeps the language simple to catch the flavor of the simple Chinese peasant farmers. In Peony, she captures the formal interactions between masters and servants, between men and women both Chinese and of foreign descent. She succeeds brilliantly in making the speech patterns of each character suit their role. The characters are well-drawn and appealing; the wise and beautiful Peony, who was bought as a child abandoned and sold by parents during many of the floods and famines, David, the handsome young son of the family, Ezra, his earthy and lovable father and his dominating mother Naomi, who struggles to carry on the traditions in a foreign land. The minor characters are equally good--Wang Ma, the old servant woman, Aaron, the criminal and lost son of the Rabbi, and Kung Chen, Ezra's Chinese business partner.

The story is wide-ranging, from the intimate story of life inside the walls of a Chinese-Jewish household with its extended family and servants, all the way to the Manchu court of the Western Empress Tzu Hsi. The story of the Jews in China is well-told and interesting and for the most part (excepting the timeline) based on factual information. There is epilogue to the book discussing the historical background (not available at the time of publication, when I first read this book) and it provides an interesting backdrop to a romantic historical novel hinese Jews arrived, possibly via the Silk Road during the Renaissance in Europe, but possibly even as early as the 600's. Pearl Buck shows an amazing knowledge of their story; a book had been published on the subject of Chinese Jews a few years before she started this novel and it provided excellent background for their astonishing story.

And of course Pearl Buck is first and foremost a wonderful story teller. I think this is one of her three best books (The Good Earth, Imperial Woman being the other two.) If you like Amy Tan, you are sure to enjoy this book too.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
I picked this book up a bit hesitantly. I'd read "The Good Earth" on my own initiative, and had heard of "Peony" from a friend. I read it, and must say that this book, though simply written, was one of the most chilling pieces of literature I've ever read. You find yourself truly wishing for everything to go right for the title character Peony, a Chinese handmaiden serving a Jewish family. A heartbreaking story, and I find myself agreeing with other reviewers when I say I wish the story could have turned out differently--not because the ending was weak, but because Buck so fully draws the reader into the story that you hope deperately for the main character to achieve her goal. A thoroughly engrossing read (I know this phrase has become cliched, but it does describe the book).
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This was a book I bought almost four years ago when I had had to read the Good Earth for school, enjoyed it, and wanted to try something else by the author. Recently I wanted to read something and found it on my bookshelf. If I remember, it touched me even more so than the Good Earth. Peony's selfless love, which would probably be scorned by feminists, truly touched me. I wish the ending had been different; but it's not really that I wish a different ending as that I wish life wasn't sad. (read the book, you'll understand that comment) While in the beginning I thought the religous musings were a bit too heavy, it built the novel into what it was, which was much more than a love story (although as a love story I have yet to read a more sincere one) but the story of a people whose customs must eventually die off. I am so pleased to now be aware of an obscure people in China so many years ago. The historical angle fascinates me, but it is the story that I will never forget. I applaud Pearl S. Buck for her brilliance.
(this is by a 17 year old girl who read the novel purely for pleasure)
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
"A" is excellent and that's what this book truly is. This was a great book that explored two diverse cultures mingling in love, work, family, religion, aging, power and secrets. It's a vacation to China without actually going. The proverbs, poems and phrases written within the story will stay with you forever. It's so meaningful and will provide a psychological balance for any one. If you are Chinese or Jewish this is a "required reading"! Although, I am a native Californian who was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My ancestry is from Spain and I clearly found some Jewish roots in my mothers' anscestors. And so, this book offered some answers to questions that I've always had in the back of my mind. In the end, you'll learn that, today, we are a world of diverse peoples' who must work together lovingly and happily. There is a great love story intertwined in this wonderful novel, too. it was a great reminder of how the peoples of our past have blood-lined the present populations while we will, henceforth, be a part of future generations.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2008
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderful story with well-drawn characters the reader can empathize with. When reading, you feel as if you have been picked up and plopped down in China, in the middle of this Chinese/Jewish household. I wanted it to go on forever. This book is profoundly sad and profoundly joyful at the same time, while also being interesting and informative. I was never before aware of Jews in China and now have a jumping-off point from which to do some research. Fascinating! The only thing I was slightly disappointed with was how quickly the end of the story came; near the finish of the book, the years pass too fast and everything is wound up. Mrs. Buck does not give us a "Hollywood" ending, however. She was a tremendously gifted storyteller, and I so look forward to reading her other works.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
Peony is a book of great detail and drama. You could picture every scene and action that each character takes with the descriptive words written by Pearl S. Buck.
Peony has been a bondmaid in the House of Ezra all her life. She has played, talked, and spent all her time with David, Ezra and Madame Ezra's only son, since her childhood, and has grown to love him. But Peony's love is more than a sisterly love. Due to traditions it is forbidden for Peony and David to wed. Now during the years as a servant by David's side Peony must try to resolve her love for him.
Peony is a realistic fiction book that is full of tragedy and despair that keeps drawing you in with each chapter and page you turn. Based on true events that happened in China over a century ago Peony is a remarkable book that will teach you a lesson about courage and letting go of the one you love most.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Pearl S. Buck's "Peony" is a lovely story that both touched me and informed me about an era of history of which I was unaware. The copy I found was a hardback published by the John Day Company in 1948; so I'm glad to see the story is currently in print. The story is an episodic tale that covers a number of years. Peony is a bondmaid that is apparently a well-treated slave. Buck's text discusses how her owners have the right to sell her, even separate spouses. Peony was sold by her parents as a baby and raised in one of the few Jewish households in China. As the Jewish families have blended with the Chinese, their Jewish identify has become less pure, eventually resulting in the abandonment of Judaism for Chinese philosophy. As Buck traces this, it is due to the welcoming nature of the Chinese whereas Jews in other parts of the world were separated and shunned. Through the wise Chinese merchant character of Kung Chen, Buck indicates that this is due to their own philosophy that theirs in the only God, which encourages their separation. The unrequited love of Peony for her master David and his development as he grows is quite beautiful. When Buck changes gears with the violence in Chapter VII, it happens so swiftly and abruptly that I felt literally stunned as a reader, unable to believe it had happened, much as one probably feels in life after a tragedy. As the story unfolds with David's marriage, the trip to Peking and the consequences of that visit, I found the ending strangely peaceful as Peony's love for David turns to a universal love for mankind. Peony is a masterful work 60 years after it was first published. Enjoy!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is one of those stories that has just stayed with me forever.
I find discussing myself discussing it with others, even after all these years.
Buck is a masterful storyteller. The book is rather small -- no long, drawn-out story, but it communicates the story well, with a beautiful sort of grace.
I felt I understood the culture better, and the characters were very real to me. Their story was touching. The ending, which is the type which normally would leave me feeling dissatisfied, did not. It's not the perfectly happy, romantical type ending, which I normally like, but instead it shows that even when the fairy tale does NOT come true, life can be blessed and well worth living.
My children will read this one for sure.
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