In love with “Peony”? Not so much

Back in the 90’s I saw a movie called Truly Madly Deeply, which starred a pre-Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the main female character’s boyfriend. The bad news: the boyfriend died. The good news: the boyfriend returned! The really bad news: the dead boyfriend brought along all of his sad, cold, bored, dead buddies, who just wanted to hang out in the girlfriend’s apartment watching videos.

Except in soap operas and perhaps on Lost, when it comes to dead characters, even if they return as ghosts, you know that they’re pretty much still dead and, slacker ghost buddies or not, that they are not good candidates for long term relationships. Lisa See’s book Peony in Love covers the subject of ghost love against the backdrop of seventeenth century China, and, let me tell you, when it comes to life or death in the environment See portrays, I’m thinking that, given a choice, life and death come out in a (pardon me here) dead heat.

I’ll try not to spoil the story too much, but on the side of life, you’ve got women’s not-so-nice lot, in the form of foot binding, restriction of movement, segregation from men, arranged marriage, the overvaluing of male children and devaluing of female, rampant anorexia, ridiculously oppressive superstition about absolutely everything, and even the expectation that suicide beats the soiling and shame associated with rape. On the death side, you’ve got eternal wandering, eternal hunger, dependence on the neglectful living for a proper place in the afterlife, continuing competition and jealousies with the rest of the dead, and the very romantic practice of ghost marriage with a straw dummy as the stand-in for the already dead bride (lovely!).

In the book, See is giving us a picture of a culture otherwise unfamiliar to us Westerners. I get that. What I don’t get is why See, in an otherwise incredibly inventive story, continually returns to the themes of female infighting, oppression against women perpetrated by other women, and romantic love as so over-arching and women so prone to lovesickness, that being in love could be a lifetime obsession or a deadly proposition. She throws some bones to women, but they’re not enough to make us readers feel like she wants us to do more than just contextualize the practices she’s described and, in doing so, dismiss our repulsion of them.

In an interview about the novel, she says, “My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief systems. One isn’t right and the other wrong…” Institutionalized sexism and racism are still wrong, no matter what a culture’s beliefs may be. The character of Peony in Peony In Love grew in a lot of ways over the course of the novel, but, for me, she fell somewhat short of that realization.

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It’s how it is about it

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“I don’t hate my brother. If anything, I may pity him. He’s a complete idiot, and he’s the one who hates me.”

“He hates you?”

“Precisely. I think that’s why he came back here. So that he could spend his last years hating me at close quarters.”

I reflected at last month’s book club meeting that maybe one of the reasons I stopped reading (and essentially couldn’t stand) Pillars of the Earth was because of the violence against women that it portrayed.

Let me now retract that.

Consider movie critic Roger Ebert’s take on the content of film: “It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.”

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m struck that violence against women (which this book has, in buckets—not literal buckets, but close) can be handled as engaging rather than unilaterally offensive, placed into context, and used for developing respectable characterizations and not just as a device for hurtling along the plot. I can’t say that I’m in love with the lifestyles of Larsson’s various characters (whose respective theme songs—trust me on this one—could be “Love the one you’re with,” “You give love a bad name,” and “Love stinks.”). But I have to admit that after a while—even with the story’s (spoiler warning!) crazed creeps and the women they’ve trapped—I couldn’t put the book down…and didn’t feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally did.

The original Swedish edition of Dragon Tattoo bore the title Men who Hate Women, which, while accurate (in spades), is not exactly the kind of thing that will keep Americans in suspense. I’m not making a feminist commentary here; it’s just that I think Americans may like a little mystery in their mysteries. With the less direct title, I, for one, was surprised at the extent to which one limited group of men in the book could hate women…and how those women (or one in particular) chose so creatively to respond.

Yes, I enjoyed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Would I recommend it? Well, yeah, but with a strong graphic content warning.

Another point of interest for me was that this is one of those rare books I could imagine a man reading. Let’s face it—so much of today’s fiction is written for a women’s audience. But I could see a man reading and enjoying this combination mystery, family epic, detective novel, crime story, corporate morality tale, and miniature computer catalog (I swear, I’ve never seen the word “iBook” in print so many times in one place). I do have qualms about the sinister ground it covers, but, hey, I can’t police the conscience of the entire reading universe.

On now to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. That one can’t be so edgy. Not, I guess, unless the original title was UK Women Who Stabbed Their Men With Dull Potato Peelers while Reading Collections of Charles Lamb in their Blood-Soaked Nighties. I’ll let you know on that one, one way or the other.

Summer Reading, Part II

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I have a feeling that reading is all I’ll be doing this summer, considering that my summer reading list has now expanded by 3 dress sizes! Thanks to everyone who has provided suggestions so far—I always appreciate a test drive.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), I made the mistake of reading a bunch of book reviews last night (click here to read them; they start on page 13), and they are all super-intriguing. Needless to say, they are now on the list:

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet – Neil deGrasse. This one’s about the decision to demote Pluto from the Big 9, the ensuing backlash, and the special place that Pluto occupies in pop culture and Americans’ hearts.

Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch & the Dawn of the Space Age – W. Patrick McCray. Seems that the only American folks tracking the Sputnik in 1957 were amateur astronomers; this book tells the stories surrounding that effort and shines a light on the current role of amateurs in astronomy.

The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village – Thomas Robisheaux. Oh, the paradoxical life of an accused witch: confess, burn, but know that you’ll still go to heaven…because you’ve confessed…and possibly because you’ve burned. This one is the (true, I think) story of a hard-living woman accused in 1672 of witchery. Seems that Monty Python was not far off on this one.

The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America – Steven Johnson. This is the story of Joseph (not Jason) Priestley who both discovered that breathable air comes from plants and ended up founding the Unitarian Church. The science fact that plants make oxygen is so basic, so what I want to know is, where has this story been hiding? I’m reading the book just to find out what in the world this quote means: “epic breakthroughs happen when…energy flows and settlement patterns and scientific paradigms and individual human lives come into some kind of mutually reinforcing synchrony that helps the new ideas both emerge and circulate through the wider society.”

Real page-turners, I know, but we might all be surprised. Happy reading!