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Peony Hardcover – June, 1948
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|Hardcover, June, 1948||
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"Peony has the vividness of scene and episode and character and the colorful detail that Pearl Buck's readers have come to expect of her novels in China..." --New York Herald Tribune. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Pearl S. Buck was born in West Virginia and taken to China before the turn of the century. She began writing while in China and publishing her first novel shortly after returning to this country. Ms. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for The Good Earth and the Noble Prize in Literature in 1938. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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There are a lot of things to admire about the book. Some of the characters are fascinating, especially David’s mother and the old servant woman. I didn’t like the two other main characters, Peony and David. Peony is manipulative and David is a very underdeveloped character. He’s also dumb. The main storyline regards the women in David’s life and which one he will choose to marry. His mother and father each have different ideas. Peony loves him, but she’s a lowly “bondswoman” (essentially a slave). David decides he will only marry a Chinese girl that he caught a glimpse of once at a distance. He doesn’t know anything about her, other than she is beautiful. Once he meets her and finds out she is a simple-minded, temperamental idiot, he doesn’t care because she is still beautiful, and, hey, what else matters in a woman other than her looks?
The other interesting aspect of the book is the story of a group of Jews living in China. I was totally unaware of any such group, but Buck based it on fact and apparently did quite a bit of research. However, I was a bit uncomfortable with some of her portrayals and opinions expressed. Her idea, at least as expressed by the characters, is that the Jews should stop viewing themselves as God's chosen and separate and should become more like other people, in this case, their Chinese neighbors. I am not Jewish and have no opinions, but I am not sure how a Jewish person would react to this novel. I was also surprised at how Buck portrays the Chinese as so superior to others, simply as perfect people. I’ve been to China a few times, several years ago, and I was surprised at how nice and friendly the Chinese were, but I think history tells us they can also be not so nice, just like everyone else.
There's an empathy with Peony which is magically interwoven by the author throughout the girl's story. The plot begins to disclose what choices in romantic love or marriage in the present and future this servant girl might expect to have--other than becoming the mistress of some free man of the Chinese or another race, or the wife of a Chinese. The fact is that some foreign men, even the Jews who've long dwelt in Kaifeng such as Peony serves, have taken wives or mistresses from among Chinese women.
Very much interwoven with the main and sub love plots in the story is the theme of the eminent demise of the Synagogue in Kaifeng. A marriage choice involving David and the daughter of the elderly Rabbi causes strong pressure to be brought to bear in order to secure that alliance for the sake of the Synagogue's continuance.
At around this point in the story, Peony goes to an older, wiser female servant in the household and with her heart ready to break because she does not know what will happen to her if David weds Leah, she asks the older woman please to tell her if Life is Happy or Sad? (It was at this point in the book, having been brought to feel a keen sympathy with Peony, that I decided that this was one of the best books that Pearl Buck had written--besides "The Good Earth," which was also quite effectively written and emotionally evocative.) I felt as eager to hear old Wang Ma's answer as did Peony. Well, Wang Ma's answer is that at bottom Life is sad: "You cannot be happy until you understand that life is sad," she says, so that then you will have no vain dreams of happiness. When you are expecting nothing you will be glad for anything you get that makes you happy.
Wang Ma realizes what particular thoughts about David are behind Peony's question and she gives her further advice: She tells her that if she wants to spend her years in the house of their Master and Mistress, she should "inquire into what woman is to be our young master's wife," because that wife will be the ruler of him and his household whether he likes it or not. So, therefore, accordingly, Peony should manage a way to choose who will be his wife! Other machinations and manuevers, now by Peony, ensue.
At some point--I think in the last half of the book--I realized that Peony was a "Saint." I feel sure that Pearl Buck meant to paint her as such. Peony became a "wonder" of a selfless servant. Very capable, wise, always ready to give up her own preferences and always anticipating ahead of time what she could do to fill other people's needs. Considering her fate in the concluding phases of the story (which I won't be explicit about in order not to give away the plot), I feel even more convinced that Pearl Buck deliberately depicted Peony as the "suffering servant" who accepted an unhappy fate without rancor and went on bringing harmony, peace, and happiness to those in the little "family" that continued to occupy a place in her life.
(I haven't delved deeply enough into Pearl Buck biographies to know whether or not any of them mention that Pearl felt friendly to "Catholicism," but I got that impression from reading this novel and also "Imperial Woman," which was about the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi.)
The first time I began to read "Peony" I found the first few pages boring and dry, so I put it aside. However, having an interest in the way that Pearl Buck would depict the demise of the Synagogue and the intermingling in marriage of the Jewish and Chinese people, I went back to the book. For some reason, on the second reading, I became very interested in the story right away. Maybe the difference was due to my being in a different mood--I don't know. But anyway, I advise anybody who finds it boring at first to come back to it and try again.
(I'm not sure but what the way Buck handles aspects of Jewish culture may be over-dramatic and somewhat unrealistic, but, on the whole, as a great story which is well told and which creates great empathy with memorable characters, including not only Peony, I think this is a terrifically good book.)
(I read a hardback, original edition. Amazon has a few of such available at around only $3.00.)
I did not care for this particular story as much as some of her other books. I kept waiting for the love story to unfold between Peony and the male protagonist and it was more than 2/3 through the book before this is even really addressed. Perhaps had I not read the blurb and had no expectations I'd have enjoyed the story more? I still recommend it for the lovely style of writing and all the historical information as well.