Saturday, May 28, 2011


Peony. Pearl S. Buck. 1948/2006. Moyer Bell. 352 pages.

It was spring in the city of K'aifeng, a late spring in the northern Chinese province of Honan. Behind the high city walls the peach trees, planted in courtyards, bloomed earlier than they did upon the farms spreading over the level plains around the moat. Yet even in such shelter the peach blossoms were still only rosy buds at Passover.

Is it possible to be fascinated by a book that you don't quite like? I think so for I found Peony by Pearl S. Buck to be completely fascinating and compelling and yet not quite to my liking. Narrated by a bondmaid, Peony, readers learn about a Jewish community living within the Chinese city of K'aifeng in the early 19th century. Peony, a Chinese servant who was "bought" as a young child to be a companion to the couple's young son, David, a woman who comes to fall in love with him. It is an all-consuming, sometimes quite manipulative love, a forbidden love, but a forever kind of love nonetheless.

Ezra and Madame Ezra could never accept this servant as a daughter-in-law. But both are fond of her in their own way. As for David, he couldn't imagine life without Peony nearby. He promises that as long as he lives, she'll always always have a place in his home. But does he love her? At the beginning? Not really. Does he even know what love is?!

It is Madame Ezra's greatest desire for her son, David, to marry Leah, the daughter of the rabbi. It is her greatest desire that her son will come to embrace the Jewish faith, study under the rabbi, and maybe just maybe take his place since the rabbi's son, Aaron, is no good. She even invites Leah to live with them in their home. Hoping that Leah will be able to persuade David that he is more Jewish than Chinese. (David's father, Ezra, had a Chinese mother and a Jewish father.)

But. David is more like his father, Ezra, than his mother. David tries to learn about Judaism from the rabbi. He reads what he is supposed to read. He studies what he is supposed to study. But he has a hard time believing that God is real, that his people are chosen, that a wrathful God--a jealous God--could be a good God, a holy God, a just God. Instead, David comes to believe that religions are mostly the same--all man-made and essentially nonsense. He's closer to "accepting" the teachings of Confucius than the teachings of the Torah. He brings the rabbi to despair and breaks his mother's heart--for a time at least.

So his mother is pushing him to marry Leah. And Peony is pushing him to marry a pretty (but mindless) Chinese girl, Kueilan. For she believes that she could get along better with her than Leah. That if he chooses Leah--and the faith--that she'll be pushed out of his life. She even goes so far as to write both sides of their love letters! Peony has flaws--plenty of flaws! And it wasn't easy for me to stay on good terms with her.  

So Peony chronicles the lives of this Jewish family. It examines the tension between being Jewish and being Chinese. It examines how living in China for several centuries--at least--has had an impact on their faith, their culture, their teachings. It explores the decay of this community. How almost each generation weakens the faith, weakens the community. Each generation coming to compromise more and more of their faith.

So I liked elements of this one. I found the story itself to be fascinating. The novel covers several decades--at least--of this Jewish community from the point of view of one prominent family. And the afterword by Wendy R. Abraham was equally fascinating. I learned how much was fact, how much was fiction. How Pearl Buck played with the chronology a bit, but was true enough in some ways to do this community justice. But. I can't say that I "liked" the characters themselves--David and Peony especially. I found my heart breaking--along with his mother's heart--when David rejected faith in the one true God. I found it sad--very sad--to see the decay of the faith. How when the rabbi died there was no one within the community to take his place, there was no one left to carry on his work, his teachings. And Peony? Well. I found her to be selfish and manipulative and deceitful. So I liked some things; didn't like other things.

I did find it to be well-written. I think I liked this one more than the Good Earth trilogy, but I still think Kinfolk is my favorite.

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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