In 1918, fate brings thirteen-year-old Xiang Xiang to the upper-class prostitution house Peach Blossom Pavilion in Shanghai, after her father is unjustly executed for a crime he didn’t commit and her mother is forced into a nunnery. In present-day San Francisco, an elderly Xiang Xiang recounts the years of her youth to her great-granddaughter and her American fiancé for a memoir. Her tale begins in innocence as a young girl believing she’s come to a paradise in Peach Blossom, where she is given lessons in the arts, fine clothes to wear, and good food to eat. That innocence soon becomes lost as Xiang Xiang comes to understand exactly what she is expected to do to with those gifts: seduce men and earn money for the house. With her fellow “sister”, Pearl, guiding her, and under her new name of Precious Orchid, Xiang Xiang soon reaches the level of ming ji, prestigious prostitute. Her status brings her fame, but not the things she desires more than anything else - freedom and revenge against the warlord who tore her family apart.
Fans of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See are sure to be drawn to and find great enjoyment in Peach Blossom Pavilion. The book delves deep into the tragic lives of the women in the prostitution house who had little hope for any kind of bright future. Though the “business” that takes place in the prostitution house is described, the writing is done tastefully and is not overly graphic. Precious Orchid carries the reader on her journey filled with loveless encounters with countless men, her friendship with Pearl, her desire for revenge against the warlord who killed her father, and ultimately her escape and quest to find her mother. Yet her escape brings her little more freedom, despite her finding love with two different individuals, one whom she knows is her true love but who cannot provide the life for her that she’s used to living, and another who loves her desperately but whom she cannot bring herself to love fully in return. Happiness is an elusive thing for Precious Orchid, and hers is a story of a woman struggling to survive a life haunted by tragedy.
Scattered throughout the book are numerous passages of poems, song lyrics and Chinese sayings that are just as enjoyable to read as the story itself. Not only do they add a sense of authenticity to the story, making the characters and time period feel more true, but also touch it with an artistic flair. The main twist at the end regarding who was behind the accusation against Precious Orchid’s father is not wholly unexpected but interesting nonetheless.
The poignant Peach Blossom Pavilion continues to linger in the reader’s mind, with many scenes and Precious Orchid’s words resounding. It’s a novel of heartache, but also one of hope as the strong heroine never gives in. With its lovely prose and memorable characters, Peach Blossom Pavilion is sure to touch all who read it.