To be honest, my first inclination was to rate Peony in Love as an "average" read. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. My initial disappointmen...moreTo be honest, my first inclination was to rate Peony in Love as an "average" read. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. My initial disappointment reflected my expectations of the novel while reading. First, the title and purpose of the book were misleading, at least as far as I was concerned. I expected a retelling of The Peony Pavilion, a tale that reminded me of Romeo and Juliet.
Because Peony in Love began as a retelling of a famous Chinese opera, much of the story in Part 1 was predictable, which lessened my overall enjoyment. Why read this book when I could have read the original opera, which was probably better? Then, the story morphed into something different. However, the twists made the tale difficult to follow. Was this a love story about Peony and her mysterious poet? Was this a love story about a family, specifically the women of the Chen Family Villa? These were just two of many questions that plagued me all through Parts I and II.
As the book progressed, I realized that the theme and purpose revolved around a love for writing, which wasn't clear until Part III. After finishing the novel, I gave myself time to reflect on its meaning and slowly grasped the massive undertaking that Lisa See took. True, this was a retelling of The Peony Pavilion, but it was even more. See explored the writing and creation of The Three Wives' Commentary, an academic book written by three women:
1. Chen Tong, born ca. 1649 (Peony in the book) 2. Tan Ze, born ca. 1656 3. Qian Yi, born ca. 1671
These women were Chinese scholars, not officially recognized, who loved writing. Their importance is best expressed by See herself in the brief history reference at the beginning, "In 1694, The Three Wives' Commentary became the first book of its kind to be written and published by women anywhere in the world."
Peony in Love deserved a higher rating because of its complexities, storytelling, and See's goal: To show that women have been writing and publishing as long as men, even if their stories got "lost" in history. This is the same theme I express with many historical fiction short stories I write. I'm still in awe at how See brought these different stories together into one masterpiece.
As I mentioned, the book is divided into three parts:
Part I: In the Garden Part II: Roaming with the Wind Part III: Under the Plume Tree
The setting is seventeenth century China after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed. The reader sees the "world" through the young eyes of Peony, who's turning sixteen. The Chen Family Villa is exquisitely described, especially since a lot of women weren't allowed to leave their family compounds until marriage. The setting is enhanced by the historical research (the novel is based on a true story), and the Chinese traditions and rituals that See painstakingly paints of another time and place foreign to many modern readers.
The poetic beauty of ancient China is mirrored by the colorful characters that See develops. Even though the book is about three women, the entire story is told from the first person perspective of Peony. This stylistic choice annoyed me, though. I wanted more insights into other characters, like Peony's mother, father, grandmother, and most especially the two other female writers, Tan Ze and Qian Yi. I felt cheated that everything was filtered through Peony, who I quickly wrote off as a silly "lovesick maiden."
At first, Peony was the most boring character. Her actions were predictable and reflected her young, immature mindset. She was a spoiled and selfish brat. I didn't respect anything she wrote or thought because she was always thinking of herself. There were many important events happening outside Peony's little world, especially to her mother and grandmother, and I was frustrated that she was blind to them. Of course, that was how she was raised to be.
As the book progressed, so did Peony's thinking. Slowly, I warmed up to her. I never did embrace her character fully, but I appreciated the positive affects the other characters had on her as well as her growth throughout the story.
Out of all the characters, my favorites were Tan Ze and Qian Yi. Tan Ze was an amazing antagonist while Yi represented a delicate balance between Ze's and Peony's overwhelming personalities.
Lisa See had numerous resources to use to make this book successful, and it shows in her writing style. The story was practically written for her, at least through historical documents. Rather than waste unnecessary time on the plot, she spent a great deal developing her characters and expanding on their personalities, which history very rarely captures accurately if at all. See's writing flows on the pages of the book like water down a stream. Everything is very precise and poetic at the same time. She uses traditional ideas that women are too emotional or weak to reflect on the strengths of the fairer sex. In this way, she undermines the preconceived notion that emotional writing cannot be academic writing. These women were scholars in their time period and are still acclaimed critics today...and what they analyzed was the theme of love, both in their own lives and in the opera.
Peony in Love is a read that many adults would enjoy and maybe some teenagers depending upon their intellectual capabilities. It helps if you are already interested in Chinese culture, literature, and history. I cannot express enough how useful a degree in Chinese literature or history would be when reading this piece. Specifically, if one has read either The Peony Pavilion or The Three Wives' Commentary your understanding and enjoyment of Peony in Love will increase. There are too many nuances that are missed, and it's easy to become confused like I was without a better appreciation of what See is writing about. I recommend reading, at least a couple of times before starting the book, her Chinese history introduction and the preface from The Peony Pavilion included at the beginning of Peony in Love. They both inform the purpose of See's writing and sets an appropriate tone/mood. Finally, at the end of the book, Lisa See includes a very important "Author's Note" and "Acknowledgements" section that further illuminates her intentions and the sources she used when writing. Again, I recommend reading both sections a few times after having completed the book to solidify your comprehension.
I'm very grateful I took the time to reflect on my reading because it allowed me to appreciate Peony in Love for all it has to offer rather than relying on my initial shallow thoughts. Still, I couldn't rate this book a +5 purely because I didn't like Peony's voice, which could have been stronger. Some parts of the artistic layout also frustrated me. I would have preferred the women to have separate perspectives that come together at the end of the novel rather than filtering everything through Peony. Still, this was an amazing attempt at perfection. I only hope that my writing inspires others the way Lisa See's did.(less)
I debated a long time over whether or not The God of Small Things deserved a +4 or a +5 rating. The difference between the two ratings seems rather arbitrary, but it's really not. Giving a read a +5 rating means it was perfectly written, and that it is a must read. Upon many days of reflection, I declare that this novel is in fact perfectly written, and it should be read by all even though it won't be understood by all, which is the unfortunate truth of many classic contemporary world literatures. This happens because many Western readers don't understand other cultures (the strangeness of things written or foreign words). This can cause many readers to feel isolated and disconnected from the narrative. To prevent this from happening, before reading The God of Small Things, one should have some knowledge/understanding of India, the Indian Caste System, and postcolonialism. With a little research and a group discussion with other readers, this book comes alive and leaves you wanting more from Arundhati Roy.
The God of Small Things takes place in 1969 in the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India. This is a turbulent time for India because of Marxist movements that are occurring, which threaten to overturn India's caste system. The workers are rebelling while the authority figures (police officers) continue to condone the status quo to keep certain Indians in their place. According to one news article, in 1968, "160 complaints were filed against the police for activities ranging from murder, torture, and collusion in acts of atrocity, to refusal to file a complaint." Even though "untouchability," as the lowest caste members are described, was officially banned in India in 1950, discrimination continues past that date, as demonstrated by the actions in the novel (which are semi-biographical) and by current events. Another website further elaborates how the caste system is especially present in India's rural areas. The statistics say that there are about 250 million Untouchables and "the United Nations estimates that there are 115 million child laborers and 300 million starving people in India, most of which are Untouchables."
The setting is very important in the novel because it describes and defines these injustices (how the caste system tears people apart, even in one's family) as well as the influences of religion (traditional and Christianity) on the peoples. Without some knowledge of India's history and current affairs, the setting loses much of its significance.
The setting is only one piece to a very complex story and plot. Because of constant shifts in time, it's difficult for the average reader to follow the narrative. The disjointed narrative is important, though, because Roy shows that time and history is not linear. Things that happen in our pasts can launch unforeseen complications in our lives, like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the ripples spread out from the origin point. All of history is connected, and it often repeats itself. Roy shows this and more. She forces the reader to stay alert. This isn't a "beach read novel." This is a piece of literature that asks the reader to step outside her or his comfort zone and take a glimpse into someone else's lives, in this case three main characters:
1. Rahel (girl) and Esthappen Yako (Estha): fraternal ("two-egg") twins
2. Ammu: their mother, born 1942. Married to "Baba" ("father": his real name is never given) and divorced.
There are a slew of other important characters, but delving too deeply into them would spoil the story for any who desire to read this magnificent novel and be surprised. Here is a simple list of other characters without any spoilers compiled by Paul Brians:
***Baby Kochamma (born Navomi Ipe): Rahel and Estha's grandfather's sister--their grand-aunt. "Kochamma" is not a name, but a standard female honorific title.
***Sophie Mol ("Sophie girl"): the twins' cousin, daughter of their Uncle Chacko and Margaret Kochamma. Throughout the novel, "mol" is "girl" and "mon" is "boy."
***Margaret Kochamma: daughter of English parents, former wife of Chacko, then of Joe, mother of Sophie Mol.
***Mammachi (Shoshamma Ipe): blind grandmother of Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol, founder of the family pickle factory. "Mammachi" simply means "grandmother."
***Pappachi (Benaan John Ipe): late abusive husband of Mammachi. ("Pappachi: of course means "grandfather.")
***Chacko: son of Mammachi, divorced first husband of Margaret.
***Joe: second husband of Margaret, died 1969.
***Kochu Maria: "Little Maria": the tiny cook of the household.
***Larry McCaslin: Rahel's American husband.
***Velutha Paapen: Paravan untouchable around whom much of the action revolves.
***Vellya Paapen: his father.
The story centers around the twins' lives and their relationships with those around them, mainly their family members and a few of the servants who work for their family. There are a few key events in the twins' childhoods that define who they become as adults, i.e. the visit to the movie theater, Sophie Mol's visit to India, etc. It's important to note that Ammu and her family come from money even though they don't have a lot left. They are high up on the social caste and interact with their Untouchable servants as little as possible.
The plot is really complex with many stories being told simultaneously. The central one, however, is called "The Terror." To disclose what it is would spoil the journey Roy takes her readers on to discover "truths" about family and history. Needless to say, there are choices and decisions in the characters' lives that change who they become.
The character development is intense and complex because of the time-shifts. The story begins twenty-three years after the main events with tons of flashbacks and flashforwards in the rest of the narrative. At the start of the novel, the twins are young, just children. At various points the reader glimpses them as adults, how their lives as children ended abruptly (the loss of innocence). Other family members change over the course of time, many becoming broken shells, ghosts of their former, lively, and carefree selves.
Arundhati Roy's largest triumph with her character development is her ability to enter the mind of children without compromising their innocence or being condescending about childhood in general. She enters into their thinking in a way that few authors have ever been able to. She does not make them sentimental characters, but instead reveals fierce passions and terrors that bring the twins closer together even as it almost destroys them. These fierce passions and terrors live with them as adults. Some might even say their growth and maturity was stunted because of what happened to them as children. You will have to read more and discover the truth in Roy's magnificent language.
Language is both the saving grace and often the most cited failing of this novel. Some describe Roy's writing as "poetry," which is how I view it. Others explain that her story lacked focus or that her writing techniques confused them, particularly some of the Salman Rushdean stylistic tricks such as capitalizing Significant Words and runningtogether other words. If this didn't make the reading a little slower for some, the Malayalam words and phrases she uses would do it for many others, although Roy provides contextual translations for those who are close and critical readers to spot these definitions when they are given. Basically, I can't stress enough how important it is to really READ this novel. Like any good poetry, one needs to take her or his time, process a little bit, and then come back for more. I highly recommend taking notes and even insist on multiple readings to truly understand the complexities of the story and language. This is when reading this book in a class or with other people would be helpful for one's understanding. I also highly recommend perusing the Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things Study Guide after having read the book (hence the second reading recommendation). It's important to read it afterwards because there are many spoilers revealed in the study guide.
There are a plethora of themes and motifs found in The God of Small Things. They vary from love, madness, hope, infinite joy, family relations, trust, and regret, to name just a few. They might read simply here, but they are complex and intertwine with all the characters from the twins to their Uncle Chacko to their little cousin Sophie Mol. Everyone is affected by the decisions made by a few. The themes should resonate with all readers, even if you have no experience with India's culture. Who hasn't loved so deeply that they would break all the rules? Just think of Romeo and Juliet. Love and tragedy go hand-in-hand when it comes to classic literatures. And it's not just romantic love discussed in The God of Small Things. Even Ammu's children don't feel they deserve to be loved by their mother and families. They are just never good enough...never white enough.
Just like the themes and motifs, there are myriads of literary elements used. This book was discussed in an undergraduate postcolonial literature class taught by Sr. Aaron at Dominican University of California, and for good reason. Arundhati Roy is a literary genius. She uses traditional literary conventions, like metaphors, similes, sycophancy, alliteration, and more to make her writing lyrical and poetic. She also creates her own masterpiece language, inspired by other great authors like Rushdie. I would say only "inspired by" because she creates her own disjointed rhythms, her own language that is described as being "at once classical and unprecedented." Roy's book and writing is truly magical, weaving a story that few will ever forget.
The message and purpose of Roy's story is multi-fold. First, she wanted to tell some of the story of her mother's life, who she dedicated the novel to. Paul Brians describes it as follows:
Mary Roy is the author's mother, who struggled to raise Arundhati on her own while teaching in the rural village of Aymanam (called "Ayemenem" in the novel) in southwestern India, in Kerala State. Arundhati left home at age sixteen to study architecture in Delhi.
Another reason for writing this novel was to give the readers some history about India, specifically Kerala, which is known for its relative freedom for women. Paul Brians warns in his Study Guide that Western readers should not read the female characters as being constrained. Instead, Roy depicts the women as having been hurt by male domination but constantly fighting and struggling against this dominance with a courage and assertiveness that gives hope to those who are oppressed. Although things can't always end happily, the characters keep fighting for what is right and praying that "The God of Small Things" will hear their prayers and change will take root. It only takes one person to make a difference in another's life, good or bad.
The third and final reason for writing this novel was Roy was partly protesting the South Asian prudery which stands in the way of love, one such aspect being the Indian Caste System.
I haven't read a novel as good as this one in a long time. The God of Small Things reminds me of readings from postcolonial classes, such as Heart of Darkness and many of V.S. Naipaul's works. This is a novel that I hope to teach someday, and it puts many other works that focus on a child's perspective to shame, simply inferior writing, such as Jack in Room.
Arundhati Roy is truly an amazing writer and storyteller. She was trained as an architect, yet she left this career to pursue writing, first as a production designer and then a writer of screenplays, two of which were made into films. Then, she wrote this masterpiece. As far as I can tell, this is her only novel, although she is reported to be working on her second. Even though she doesn't have another novel, she continues to write screenplays. Arundhati Roy is a social activist and feminist speaking out for various causes. She cares about the world and its people, especially those in her own country.
Overall, my emotional reaction was tremendous. While reading this novel, I went up and down as if I were riding a roller coaster. When the book ended, I even cried, not from the tragedies that were described but from the passions of the characters and the love-- an all consuming love that is worth any sacrifice. There is a sense of hope that runs deeper than any of the family wounds. I couldn't imagine a reader not feeling something as they progress through this novel, even if it's annoyance that the book is forcing them to think.
As I already stated, I recommend this book to everyone. It's a "must-read." I do recommend that younger readers wait until they are in college before attempting this novel purely because it is a complex piece of literature. Plus, much of the subject matter is rather depressing, and it might be difficult for a younger reader to get through it all.
The God of Small Things is an important novel and everyone should read it because of the messages enclosed in its pages: equality, the affects of religion, and the importance of showing and sharing love with everyone in your life (such as your own family and children). These themes cross boundaries and many of the issues stop becoming just India's problems and reach across oceans as something all peoples can work on despite our differences.
The most important thing I recommend to all those reading this novel is keeping some important resources nearby to help with your understanding. I recommend the following websites:
There are many facts and research information available in this novel, but without a preliminary background and understanding about India and its people, this repertoire of knowledge will be lost on most readers.
Get the most from this novel by putting in a little extra effort and work while reading it.(less)