Book Review: Peony in Love, by Lisa See

It is odd to encounter pride in subservience, but it should not be surprising. In China, the standard was set centuries ago by a woman named Ban Zhao, who argued that women were too important not to be taught to serve their men. The forcefulness of her advocacy for female education has led some modern scholars to call her a feminist, but the object of her advocacy – the inculcation of complaisance – has led the rest of us to balk at the term. There are few things more mind-blowingly paradoxical than the pride Ban Zhao took in the woman’s role as upholder.

Lisa See’s Peony in Love showcases this sort of pride in a seventeenth-century elite family. In the words of its protagonist (named Peony), “As women, we have to think about how to make our husbands happy by being good wives, bearing sons, running our households well, and being pretty so they don’t become distracted from their daily activities or loiter with concubines. We are not born with these abilities. They must be instilled in us by other women. Through lessons, aphorisms, and acquired skills we are molded…” (p. 73)

Chief among the instillers is Peony’s mother, whose molding of little girls starts with their feet. Footbinding, that most grotesque symbol of subjugation, is exactly what elicits the most pride from Peony’s mom:

‘More girls are having their feet bound than ever before in the history of our country,’ Mama explained. ‘The Manchu barbarians believe our women’s practice to be backward…but the Manchus can’t see us in our women’s chambers. We wrap our daughter’s feet as an act of rebellion against those foreigners….We have our women’s ways. This is what makes us valuable. It’s what makes us marriageable. And they cannot make us stop….They cannot compete with us or stop us from cherishing our culture. More importantly, our bound feet continue to be an enticement to our husbands.’ (p. 46)

So sayeth the mother, but does the daughter (Peony) take such pride in her condition? Indeed, her enthusiasm for the life that is planned for her is shaken by the opera The Peony Pavilion, which introduces the disruptive force of love. It is love that suggests to Peony a chance at a kind of escape:

I wanted to bury myself in thoughts of love. I had no way to get out of my [arranged] marriage, but maybe I could escape from it in the same way I had here in my natal home, by reading, writing, and imagining….I did have a certain kind of knowledge…and I would use it to save myself. I wouldn’t write poetry about butterflies and flowers. I had to find something that would not only be meaningful to me but would sustain me for the rest of my life.

A thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun wrote, ‘All things not at peace will cry out.’ He compared the human need to express feelings in writing to the natural force that impelled plants to rustle in the wind or metal to ring when struck. With that I realized what I would do….I would find all those places in The Peony Pavilion that illustrated [my thoughts about the Seven Emotions]. I would look inside myself and write not what the critics had observed or what my aunts discussed about these emotions but how I felt them myself. I would finish my project in time for my marriage….My project would be my salvation in the coming dark years. I might be locked up in my husband’s home, but my mind would travel… (p. 76-77)

The rest of this review is a spoiler.

Peony, therefore, pins her wishes on an inward escape; she has no hope of launching any kind of rebellion. Readers holding out for the latter will be disappointed, especially since Peony will, following the examples of Ban Zhao and of her own mother, reconcile herself to, and even express pride in, female subservience. Encountering a young woman whose feet she had helped to bind, Peony feels “a momentary flash of pride that her bound feet had turned out so well.” (p. 202) She resolves to bind another girl’s feet in order to give her a chance at an upward marriage. (pp. 223-224) She counsels yet another woman, “Your husband is Heaven. How could you not serve him?” (p. 173) It is very hard for the modern reader, myself included, to avoid feeling revolted at Peony’s failure to grow out of – nay, her success at growing into – this most ironic form of chauvinism.

However, in exact proportion as I sympathize with Peony in Love’s frustrated readers, I am compelled to respect its accomplished writer. Lisa See has done what I could not: She has created a convincing protagonist at peace with a world we could never accept. While writing Southern Rain, I found it impossible to imagine a female lead who was well-adjusted to repression. There was no way I could write sympathetically about a footbound heroine contentedly serving a pre-selected husband. Such a woman could only be a victim, in my view. So I dodged the challenge by making my heroine a social outsider, educated by nuns and with unbound feet. Lisa See, in rising to the challenge, has given us perhaps more insight into seventeenth-century China by taking us inside the mind of someone who is more fully representative of it: a teenage girl with absolutely no control over her life, warped in body, limited in mobility, fixed in destiny, and constrained in every conceivable way. What could Peony do besides make the best of her situation – even to the point of being proud of it, which most women apparently were – as well as read, write, and dream?

In its realistic delineation of its heroine’s limited options, Peony in Love must count as a great success. It is historically well-grounded and finely researched, right down to conceptions of the afterlife. The jury may still be out on the question of realism versus reader satisfaction, but See’s realistic book, like Peony’s life, is probably as satisfying as could be expected. 

Book Review: Crossing the Horizon, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro’s Crossing the Horizon promises a tale of “three remarkable women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kan7FDWhDcc), but one of its three main subjects, Mabel Boll, doesn’t belong with the other two. Granted, Ms. Boll was one of at least three women who hoped to cross the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart did. However, she was not herself a pilot (she would have made the trip only as a passenger) and comes off in these pages as a frivolous socialite and gossip. She might have been remarkably witty, but she wears out her welcome halfway through the book and is tolerable after that only as comic relief. If there is any lesson in her story it would be that her dependence on other people to realize her dream proves fatal to her chances: Anyone with any merit runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, leaving her in the rotten company she more commonly keeps (especially the scoundrel Charles Levine), with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else and no one really helping.

Notaro’s other two protagonists, Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay, are the true heroes. Both are addicted to freedom and stop at nothing in the pursuit of it. Both run away from home, eloping with men who seem to offer fresher prospects – though neither one does, and both women return to their families. Both are enamored of fast cars and aeroplanes and quickly obtain pilot’s licenses.  Both are inspired to follow in Charles Lindbergh’s footsteps and set their sights on the Atlantic, although they plan to cross in opposite directions – the American Elder flying east and the British Mackay flying west.

In fact, there are at least as many interesting differences between the two heroes, beside their proposed directions of travel. Elder, of Anniston, Alabama, is supported by her family in her transatlantic endeavor, while suffering at least some measure of opposition from society. It is Ruth’s mother who dresses her in a necktie and trousers, and all her relations turn out for her flight. (This reviewer is also extremely pleased that Elder’s family is not depicted here as a pack of cartoonish hicks.) However, the press seems a bit too preoccupied with the question of Ruth’s husband, and one reporter says that she’d do better as a typist. Even Eleanor Roosevelt calls her ambition “very foolish.” Conversely, Mackay is the favored daughter of aristocrats who, owing to overprotection, forbid her from making the crossing. It cannot be said for sure how much society in general would have supported her plan, for she keeps it a secret; but she seems generally to get her way in the world, and her crew is quite devoted to her.

Nothing stops either woman, of course, but the edge would have to go to Ruth Elder for her pluck at making things happen. True, most doors open for her because of her winning looks. Conscious of this advantage, she employs her lipstick and her smile strategically. However, her pretty face can get her only so far. When the world stops taking her seriously (if it ever did take her seriously) and the doors slam shut, she is forced to rely on her intelligence, her voice, and her ability to prevail in argument.

The turning point of the book comes when a smart-aleck reporter discovers her husband.

“Mister,” Ruth demanded, pointing at the young reporter who thought he had just scooped everyone. “You, sir. What is your name?”

He looked shocked and surprised and pointed to himself. “Me?” he asked, and Ruth nodded. “Dan Shear. Jersey Journal.”

Ruth nodded again and put her hands behind her back.

“Mr. Shear, have you ever been to Anniston, Alabama?” she asked without a trace of malice, but not sweetly, either.

“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a snarky laugh.

“Well, I am from Anniston, Alabama, and I am the second of seven children. Eight if you count my little brother who died when I was ten,” she said.

After revealing more of where she’s from, way more than the reporter bargained for, she asks,

“Do you know that kind of living, Mr. Shear?”

“That wasn’t my question,” he stammered. “My question was–”

“Well, this is my question to you, Mr. Shear,” Ruth interrupted. “Do you know what that kind of living is like? For a seventeen-year-old girl in Anniston, Alabama?”

“No, Miss Elder, I do not,” he finally admitted.

“Now you do,” Ruth stated firmly. “So you can stop asking those questions….My name is Ruth Elder and being married makes no difference in how I fly that plane. It doesn’t make me better or worse. It doesn’t change a thing.” (pp. 199-200)

There’s a lot of waiting around for favorable weather, but Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay end up flying their planes.

Book Review: Ants Among Elephants, by Sujatha Gidla

In capturing the Indian caste system in all its wretchedness, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants comes close to a depiction of hell. The reader will come away from this book with an enhanced religiosity, in that he will thank God that he was not born an outcaste in India.

Ants Among Elephants narrates the trials and tribulations of the author’s maternal ancestors in the mid-twentieth century. The two most prominent characters are the author’s mother, Manjula, and uncle, Satyam. The latter becomes a leading Communist in Andhra Pradesh, in India’s southeast, an understandable decision, given the rottenness of the status quo as highlighted in these pages. Indeed, the treatment of Satyam’s career in this book is rather undiluted propaganda, of the type this reviewer has often seen in accounts of the revolution in China. The power structure is shown to be so wantonly exploitative that the reader finds himself forced to agree that any effort to overthrow it – nay, to exterminate its members and appropriate their property – is justifiable. In Ants Among Elephants, this pattern is established early in the case of the Nizam’s regime in Telangana, where the custom of vetti made every citizen liable to the arbitrary demands of the dora class of overlords (p. 42). Gidla lets slip the fact that, after Independence and the annexation of Telangana by the Indian army, the vetti system was abolished; yet this victory is not admitted here to have been enough, for the army repossessed land that peasants had appropriated and restored it to its former owners (p. 60). Therefore, the struggle must go on, not to stop when the peasants achieve only “freedom from bondage” but to continue until they win “land” and “dignity” (p. 50).

If the chapters on Satyam are political, those focusing on Manjula are personal and therefore more satisfying. They also are better guides to the myriad oppressions suffered by the Indian people, far beyond the simple dynamic of landlord vs. peasant, the preoccupation of the Communists. The central fact of Indian society is its state of division. A typical passage reads:

Every girl in the hostel belonged to a clique. North Indians bullied south Indians and never mingled with them. There were separate messes for north and south. North Indians wouldn’t go to the south-Indian mess while south Indians wouldn’t dare set foot in the north-Indian one.

Within both north and south were subcliques based on language. (pp. 189-190)

The fragmentation never works out in Manjula’s favor. Even when she would seem to be with her own people, she is shunned and exploited, largely because she is a woman, with reputation-wasting snares strewn before her, but also owing to any number of reasons related to caste.

Interestingly, Manjula’s academic successes – she ends up with a Master’s degree – offer very little in the way of liberation from her miserable condition. The Indian reality shown here is very different from the Chinese, in which education separates the rulers from the ruled, so that the occasional peasant who earns an academic degree is transformed instantaneously into a mandarin or commissar; and in America, too, education is believed to be the key to general advancement. In Manjula’s case, her Master’s degree makes her technically eligible for certain teaching jobs, but her position at the bottom of society is irredeemable, and the economic advantages are nearly meaningless. The following sort of episode occurs in the book more than once:

On her way to the library one morning, Manjula was accosted by the history department’s peon [Of course! Why wouldn’t the history department have a peon?]. He told her the head of the department wanted to see her.

Professor R.S. Tripathi was old and doddering, but his renown as a historian was such that he was welcome to keep his position at the university as long as he liked. Inside his office, Manjula saw her own instructor, Professor Pathak, sitting to one side with a broad smile on his face. He proudly introduced Manjula as the most brilliant student in his class.

As Professor Tripathi gazed at her, his face darkened; his eyes shrank into black slits. He was revolted by the sight of Manjula. One look at her and he knew she was poor and untouchable….

‘She is the one I told you of,’ Pathak explained. ‘You wanted to meet her.’ But Tripathi merely stared at her coldly and said nothing. Humiliated, Manjula excused herself. (pp. 191-192)

A mind, and an education, is a terrible thing to waste on an outcaste, apparently.

Beyond the degradation of the caste system, Manjula also faces Neanderthal sexism (apologies to Neanderthals for the association). While the men in her family are pampered – her communist brother and man of the people Satyam cannot even button his own shirt – Manjula is essentially a slave. Malnourished and about to give birth to her third child, she is chided by her mother in law for being slow to make her husband a cup of tea; her husband, encouraged by his mother, throws the tea out the window, just after we have seen him throw a radio at her (pp. 242-243). Toward the end of the book, with her Master’s in hand and her family situation finally stable, she is as bad off as she ever was:

Since she and her husband now both had permanent jobs and regular incomes, Manjula had entertained a hope that their financial troubles would finally go away. But that, too, never happened. In Kakinada, she lived as married women commonly do, not only with her husband and his mother and brother, but also his uncles, aunts, cousins, and their spouses and children. At any given time some twenty to twenty-five people lived in two adjoining houses, and as no one else except her, her husband, and her husband’s brother, Percy, was educated and employed, the others all lived off those three salaries. Although the cooking was done by each family separately, when Manjula was at work, the other families would come and pillage her kitchen for rice, lentils, tamarind, chili powder, cooking oil, and kerosene. If they couldn’t find what they wanted, they went to the grocer’s and put it under her account. They stole her saris and bedsheets from the clothesline.  (p. 293)

Even the animal kingdom seems to be against her. At one point, after moving to an apparently comfortable lodging, Manjula and her children are attacked by a cohort of monkeys. Henceforth, they must schedule their activities, particularly food handling, so as not to coincide with the primates’ incursions. (pp. 278-279)

I recommend this book for its educational value. Then, after you are finished reading it, I recommend listening to a lot of Beach Boys and thanking God for the lives that we have.