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Peony (2006)

Peony (2006)
3.95 of 5 Votes: 1
1559213388 (ISBN13: 9781559213387)
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Peony (2006)
Peony (2006)

About book: Although I am drawn to Jewish culture (my boyfriend is Jewish); I was unaware of the Jewish assimilation into Imperial China. Pearl S. Buck reveals a cultural and character study in “Peony”.“Peony” encompasses the lovely prose which Buck is known for: strong, smooth, and crisp literary language with a Zen-like ambiance. Buck’s writing style always has a calming effect which adds an ethereal layer to her novels. In comparison to Buck’s “Pavilion of Women” (which I adored); “Peony” is slightly slower in pace and weaker in its impact on the reader. Something seems to be missing in “Peony” which was the starring factor in “Pavilion”. Yet, there are similarities within the two novels making Buck’s writing familiar and attractive. “Peony” follows various characters (telling the story from multiple perspectives) which results in a filter and inhibitor from getting to know each character on a deep level. The main character (Peony, clearly) is not entirely likable and is too contrasting in her behaviors/actions. However, this may be because she is a youth in “Peony”. The characters are simply either “too good” or “too bad” lacking multi-dimensional discovery. The attempt to make Peony’s character strong and profound was instead hazy and uncertain. Plus, Peony’s constant “weeping” and “tears” were extremely annoying. This can also be said about the theme of Jewish assimilation into China. Buck’s knowledge regarding the topic appears vague and construes Jews as the “good guys” with the Chinese as “bad guys”; although she doesn’t give a hearty basis for this distinction. Understandably, the novel needs an antagonist and the culture clash is her purpose but absence of an explanation makes this conflict and characterization unbelievable and in turn makes the Jewish people seem like the negative roles in “Peony”.“Peony” becomes more engaging, less predictable, and filled with more thought-provoking philosophical statements as the story progresses. However, each conflict is too easily solved thus contriving the shallow lack of depth. The chapters in “Peony” are rather long which can distress those readers seeking more regular and patterned breaks. “Peony” slows in pace in the latter half and although it has a philosophical message (concerning the blending of cultures and the death of generations); the execution falls short of Buck’s usual ardor. “Peony” doesn’t make as much of an emotional influence as one would expect from Buck. Furthermore, the ending of the novel is weak and ill-conceived to the rest of the story.“Peony” is a quick read and enticing in comparison to many other historical fiction novels on the shelves. However, it may be a let-down for Buck fans as “Peony” is somewhat sedentary. The novel is worth a read but it is not a masterpiece (it would be very moving for a YA reader, however).

As I've said before, my criterion for rating a psychology book a 5 is if it changes my life positively. This novel solidified for me my criterion for giving a novel a 5: do I shed actual tears for the characters? In this case, the answer is yes, so hence the 5 stars.The book is set in the home of a Jewish merchant family in China in the 1850's. According to the historical afterword in my copy of the book, Jews lived in China as far back as the 1200's, and the 1850's is when they ceased to function as a community. How and why did they disappear? No doubt in the way the novel depicts it: through intermarriage and assimilation.From a Jewish perspective, this book is an absolute tragedy. The matron of the house, Madame Ezra, wants nothing more than to see her son David marry a Jewish woman and carry on the Jewish tradition, even in China. But Peony, the Chinese bondmaid (a house slave, essentially), has ideas of her own about David's future and engages in some pretty elaborate manipulations to get her way. It's incredibly ironic; everyone fears Madame Ezra, but the sly little slave girl ultimately wields more power. An apropos (though admittedly borrowed) term to describe this book is a "moral chiaroscuro." The characters are not divided into black and white, good and evil. Madame Ezra has an imperious manner, but she's highly principled and is basically kind. David's struggle with his conscience is very human and very Jewish. And Peony herself, while supremely dishonest, also shows an almost saintly level of kindness, especially at the end. As I said, from a Jewish perspective, this book is 100% tragic. Traditional Jews will be disturbed by it, particularly for its attack on the concept of "chosenness." But it is nonetheless probably an accurate depiction of the fate of the Jews in China, which is something worth learning about. As a historical note, though the book is set in the 1850's, it was written in the late 1940's, i.e. in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. No doubt that is what motivated Pearl S. Buck to explore the theme of Jewish disappearance.As a love story, this novel is passionate, well-written, and complex. I don't know what a romantic would say to the ending, but overall, the book is worth reading just for the characters and the "moral chiaroscuro."
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From an historical perspective this was a really interesting book. I had known nothing about the Jewish population of Kaifeng China and to understand the death of this population through assimilation was really eye opening. The Jews fell by the wayside through complete assimilation and this book provides the perfect example of how that happened; through kindness and acceptance (what a novel concept in light of today's world!). The message holds up over time but I fear that the writing didn't. I had never read anything by Pearl Buck before this and I was eager to experience this writer. While the writing style makes sense somewhat given the setting and timing of the storyline, in contemporary times it reads more like a fable which, unfortunately, diluted the emphasis of the words. That said, Buck created some interesting characters to represent the Jews and the Chinese perspectives. However, I felt that they were too often one-dimensional or overly simplistic in their roles (the Chinese were almost too friendly and welcoming and the Jewish characters too brooding or considered strange in their customs). Overall a good reading experience though I'm not completely sure if I'm recommending it to friends or not!
I learned so much. I don't know why, but it never occured to me before that the displaced Jewish people would head east to China as well as west to Europe. And I love how Buck takes the reader into China with information about customs and events with just enough information for understanding without losing the story line at all.Peony's story is tragic but beautiful. She is not perfect, but you can see as she grows and her loves grows. She is, I think, above reproach. There were parts of the story that really pulled at my heart. I would gladly recommend this book to anyone and read it again myself.
Having read “The Good Earth” as my first foray into Buck’s novels, everything else by her has had a tough climb to reach the pinnacle I’ve put “Earth” on. This book does a very good job, but still doesn’t topple “Earth.” I liked Peony and David as characters, but I never really could find myself enjoying the story. I wanted to know what happened next, but I wasn’t compelled to keep on reading it. Halfway through the book, it seemed like the story lost steam and veered off into a completely different direction than it originally intended…leaving me wondering what the heck was going on.
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