Run (Book Review)

March 23, 2009

Run, Ann Patchett, 2007, HarperCollins.

Just like my last review, this is a book written by an author who wrote one of my top-10 favorite books of all time (in this case, Bel Canto). And, just like my last review, it was a disappointing read. The book centers around a cobbled together family, and some coincidences that bring them together. But I didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy the family and their dynamic, and I didn’t buy the coincidences that brought them together. In case that wasn’t enough, the book also suffers from some un-careful prose, such as “Then the crowd shifted imperceptibly, and opened up a narrow path for Doyle and Sullivan and Kenya to meet them.” If something is “imperceptible” it cannot be perceived. A path, however narrow, is obviously perceptible. Un-careful. I won’t stand for un-careful, anymore than I will for catharsis (see the last review).

I actually like the book in my next review, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz.

–Tobias Amadon Bengelsdorf

Peony In Love

by Lisa See


review written by Naomi Henderson

Since I have had no disposable income for some time now, I have to rely on friends and family to lend me books. The latest bundle of books came from my mother, who has been reading obsessively about various Asian cultures, most notably the Chinese. After spending three months there last year, she still “doesn’t get the Chinese,” and hopes that reading tons of books about them will shed some light onto the matter. The first book I picked up was called Peony In Love, by Lisa See. It is a historical novel that takes place in a wealthy family villa in 17th century China. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl named Peony, who leads a very sheltered life. She is never allowed out of the villa, and is completely ignorant of the world outside her family’s decadent compound. A turning point comes in her life when her father stages an opera called the Peony Pavillion for a visiting dignitary. This opera is a real part of Chinese culture, and is especially known for it’s erotic content, and constant censorship through the ages. A few years ago, a troup from China performed the opera at the Metropolitan in New York, and they included various censored scenes. This inspired the Chinese government to try to shut down the production, deeming the scenes “politically inapropriate.” The opera also has the reputation of inspiring Chinese girls into such a state of lovesickness, that they starve themselves to death. Needless to say, Peony shares this fate after she secretly meets a young man in the garden during the opera. She is already engaged, and knows she will never see her lover again. She is so distraught that she refuses to eat, and eventually passes away.
In the next phase of the story we follow Peony in her life as a ghost. The author takes into account all the traditional Chinese beliefs in the afterlife, which are very strange and exotic to the eyes of a westerner. For example, upon death, her soul divided into three parts; one stays with her body to be buried, another travels to the afterlife where it is judged, and the third enters her ancestor tablet in her family’s ancestor shrine. In the story, the last part of the ceremony is never carried out, and Peony is forced to travel the world as a “hungry ghost.” In Chinese belief, the deceased are given many material goods to take with them in the afterlife. Like humans on earth, they will need clothes, money and food. A hungry ghost is one who has not been properly buried, and has no access to these vital gifts. Peony’s clothes eventually fade and tear, and she is always ravenously hungry. Despite these hardships, Peony gets to see the outside world for the first time. She travels to the countryside, and rides on the pleasure boat of a group of women writers. She looks after her lover, and watches as he marries another woman. Peony is forever manipulating their lives, and often believes that her destructive ways are beneficial. After many tradgedies, Peony learns how to be a helpful ghost, and eventually she gains her rightful place in her family’s ancestor shrine.
I found this book very interesting in that it teaches you about a distant culture and a foriegn belief system in the guise of a love story. In Chinese belief, for example a woman who dies while she is pregnant, goes to a hell called the Fiery Lake. She is damned for “not allowing'” her unborn children to live. The book also describes various superstitions connected with the dead, such as hanging mirrors to keep evil spirits away. This book would be enjoyable to anyone who is interested in anthropolgy and history. I think my mom made a good selection with this book in her search to understand the Chinese. It certainly gave me a glimpse into a culture I know almost nothing about.