Peony by Pearl S. Buck (thoughts)
Awhile ago, Beaufort Books sent me a sweet e-mail showing that they’d actually read my review policy and offering me a book or two for review consideration. I was especially excited to see a few reissued older books that were not available on my library and happily requested three books, including Peony by Pearl S. Buck. I actually gave up on The Good Earth a few years ago because I couldn’t handle the characters’ misogyny and general horribleness, but I’ve always wanted to give Buck another try. When I finally picked up Peony, it was with equal parts curiousity and worry.
Fortunately, I’m happy to report I thoroughly enjoyed my second experience with Buck! Peony is set in nineteenth century China and centers around a young bondmaiden and the Jewish-Chinese household she’s grown up in. I had no idea that there was a historic Jewish presence in China, but learned quite a bit about it from the afterward (I approve of Beaufort Books’ decision to include an afterward rather than an introduction, since that’s how I always treat supplemental stuff in classics!) and Buck seems to have been historically accurate. This is a fascinating novel, full of strong characters (especially the women) and big themes and a powerful sense of place and time (I particularly enjoyed all of the details of everyday life that Buck seamlessly wove into the story). But it also has a playful tone to it; for instance, the marriage plot revolves around a mother pressuring her child into a socially advantageous match. But in this case, it isn’t a daughter being ‘offered up,’ but a son. And while Peony definitely uses her intelligence to try to bring about events that will benefit her (at times precarious) position, she’s far from a heartless schemer. Buck seems to enjoy playing up traditional literary tropes and then turning them on their heads, which made for quite fun reading. All of the characters were fascinating, and I was interested in how all of their lives would turn out.
In sum, I definitely want to read more of Pearl Buck in the future! I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or international fiction that’s smart but not heavy. I’m just happy that Beaufort Books has brought all of her books back into print.
P.S. It has come to my attention, thanks to Twitter and finally catching up with my Google Reader, that WordPress has recently done something strange to its comments. The result is that there are now lots of problems for people who want to leave comments and aren’t regular WP users. Of course, shifting to Blogger isn’t exactly a solution (I loathe the verification word process), so for now I’m stuck sitting tight and hoping WP sorts itself out. I know how frustrating it is to have to jump through loops to leave comments, or worse to write out a comment & then be unable to publish it, so I’m sorry!