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Peony by Pearl S. Buck (thoughts)

March 21, 2012

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.

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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!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2012 9:48 am

    I have this book!! I’ve been intrigued by PSB since I visited her home on a tour a couple of years ago. Plus I really love the covers. I’ve also picked up a few of her other titles at library sales for $1, so I have about five of her books on the TBR shelf. I did like The Good Earth because China fascinates me, so I’m glad to hear this one was good — I just wish there were more copies around so I could use it for a book group selection.

  2. March 21, 2012 9:49 am

    I forgot, which other books did you get from Beaufort Books?

  3. bonniejacobs permalink
    March 21, 2012 10:01 am

    You said, “I loathe the verification word process.” I’m on Blogger, and I did NOT choose to use word verification. It isn’t automatically part of the process. Yes, WordPress has been a problem lately. Since they make me “log in” to leave a comment, it’s a lot more trouble than word verification. But at least WP did offer me a way to include my photo with my comments now.

    • March 22, 2012 11:47 am

      I’m on Blogger and like Bonnie I did NOT choose word verification either. it is such a hassle so I hope that’s not happening on my site!
      This book sounds really good. I read The Good Earth years ago (yeah, showing my age) and I recall loving it so I will think about this one.
      Did you happen to read The Flowers of War – I think it’s actually called the Seven Flowers of NianChing? It’s the one that was made into a film and China entered it as their foreign film entry in the Academy Awards. Christian Bale stars and it’s done in English and Chinese both. I haven’t tackled it yet but would like to.
      I’m so glad I visited … I just learned about Gravatars.

  4. March 21, 2012 11:46 am

    This sounds quite good. I was really turned off by The Good Earth – like you said, the misogyny and general horribleness were just, ugh. I might be willing to give her another try with this one, though!

  5. March 21, 2012 12:57 pm

    I’ve read The Good Earth ages ago, but for whatever reason never thought to try any of Buck’s other works. This sounds good though, I’ll have to remember it.

  6. March 21, 2012 1:04 pm

    I loved The Good Earth, despite thinking I’d be bored by it, and am looking out for more Buck books to read, so really pleased that this one has your seal of approval. And I like me some inverted literary tropes!

    I thought it was just me that WordPress was being horrible to. I’m sure it’ll pass – I’m a big fan of people sticking to their blog providers, so hang on in there! I took word verification off the other day, because it was getting ridiculously difficult, and have only had two spam comments so far – pleased with that!

  7. March 21, 2012 4:51 pm

    The commenting problem is frustrating. Jenny and I turned off the requirement that people fill in their e-mail addresses, in hopes that it would help. It seems like it’s using an e-mail that’s been registered with WordPress or Gravatar without being logged in to WordPress that causes the problem. I gathered from the WordPress forums that they’re planning to change some of the messages people see when their comments don’t go through, so they’ll have a better idea what’s going on.

    • March 21, 2012 6:17 pm

      yeah – I have a WordPress account for my book group blog, but obviously I use my blogger account most of the time – that has suddenly confused WP!

  8. March 21, 2012 5:51 pm

    I read The Good Earth years ago and intended to read more Pearl Buck. This might be an option for me to reacquaint myself with her!

  9. March 21, 2012 6:55 pm

    I loved this book!!!!!!!!!!! Now I want to reread it! :)

  10. March 22, 2012 11:34 am

    I’ve never heard of this one, but it sounds fascinating (yep, Jews have been in China for centuries). In truth I hadn’t looked up any of Buck’s work beyond The Good Earth, which I read in high school and found depressing for the reasons you state. But I’ll be adding Peony to my to-read list.

  11. March 23, 2012 11:25 am

    This sounds great. I am fascinated by Jewish populations in lesser-known places.
    Also. . . I use blogger and I set it so that no one has to go through word verification when they write a commment.

  12. March 24, 2012 8:56 am

    I listened to Peony in December and loved it! I knew Buck could tell a good story, but this seemed deeper and more though-provoking than The Good Earth (which I loved). Pavilion of Women is excellent,too.

  13. boardinginmyforties permalink
    March 24, 2012 1:21 pm

    I’m glad you found one of Buck’s books that you could enjoy. I’ve had her on my list since childhood when my mother had several on our shelves at home. It is sad that I have yet to read anything of hers.

  14. Ash permalink
    March 26, 2012 12:30 pm


    I was surprised to see that you haven’t read this book yet :D Just kidding! Peony was my first foray into Buck’s writing and it was quite a captivating and engaging book! I moved onto picking “Pavilion of Women” which turned out to be a more heavier read though. This again speaks more about the women and their influence on their households. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on Pavilion of Women

  15. March 31, 2012 8:27 am

    the new WP comment thing is a pain but i hear that blogger is having problems too. argh!

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