Set in 17th century China, it tells the story of Peony, a sixteen-year-old girl betrothed from birth, who, emulating her favorite opera character, dies from being lovesick over a man she's just met.
Peony has been raised in the traditional ways (trained to obey her parents, honor her relatives, be seen and not heard, and to always, always bring honor to her family), but she's also been raised to read and think. At a young age, she fell in love with the opera The Peony Pavilion (about a young, sixteen-year-old maiden named Li-niang who takes control of her destiny in the only way she can: she starves herself) and reads it constantly, longing for a life (and love) like Li-niang's.
For Peony's sixteenth birthday, her father puts on a showing of The Peony Pavilion and it is there that Peony spies the man she instantly knows she will love. Secretly meeting him one night, she's both thrilled and terrified to realize that he feels the same way about her, although he too is engaged to marry a woman he's never met.
Despairing over the fact that she'll never be with "him," Peony stops eating and instead focuses on writing her critique of The Peony Pavilion as she wastes away. She tells herself that after she finishes writing her critique, she'll start eating again and become the good wife that she has been raised to be, but unfortunately, she doesn't get the chance. Dying, she realizes the mistakes she's made, but has no time to fix them.
(here there be spoilers, and I explain why I wanted to smack Peony!)
As it turns out, Peony's soon-to-be husband was "him." At the opera, Peony's father brings Ren (that's him) up on stage to introduce him as his future son-in-law. But Peony, in such silent despair over the fact that she'll never be with the man she loves, doesn't look out past the curtain. (And this is reason why I wanted to smack her. If she'd just looked all of this pain could have been avoided and she's have had the happy, full of love life that she wanted! Ugh, teenagers.)
It's after her death that Peony begins to realize just what's she's done by killing herself. Her mother and father, both stricken with grief, never dot her ancestor tablet, which means that Peony's soul can never be reunited and she is forced to roam the earth as a hungry ghost. Also, as she died an unmarried maiden, no one will pay her the proper ancestor respect, which means that she will continue to starve and waste away as a ghost. (It's really this part of the novel that fascinated me. I liked learning about the Chinese afterlife, the rituals for judging the dead, and the ways the ghosts were both free and bound by unbreakable rules. Apparently, in China, ghosts can't do corners, which is why bridges zig-zag. It keeps the ghost away.)
Ren also moves on, marrying a different girl after a few years have gone by. Heart-broken, Peony alternately tortures the girl in her dreams while also trying to force her to be the perfect wife for Ren. Ren's second wife eventually dies and Peony blames herself, leaving Ren's home and wandering for a while. It's during this time in her afterlife that Peony begins to grow up. Meetings with her long-dead grandmother clue her in to certain family secrets that Peony had never known, while other meetings with other lovesick maidens reinforce Peony's love in Ren and her deeper desire to be heard. It takes being reunited with her mother's ghost to really, truly, push Peony into the woman she wanted to be and to help her find the love that she'd always wanted to with Ren.
I won't spoil the ending for you because Peony's journey as a ghost and as a young woman in love is something I think you should read for yourself. It's a wonderful story, full of rich details about both 17th century China and the Chinese afterlife, about a girl who truly just wants to be heard, and a love that will transcend even death.
*This novel is based on the real-life story of three woman, wives, who wrote The Three Wives’ Commentary, the first book to be written by women. Lisa See used the names of these women, as well as all the details of their lives' (and their husband Ren) that she could in crafting this story. The Peony Pavilion is also an actual Chinese play that is still censored in China due to it's influence on young woman. A few years ago, the Chinese government temporarily delayed the production that was going to be held at Lincoln Center because they didn't want certain censored scenes to be produced.