Vol. 1 No. 4 2008


Three Thousand Years to Here
With or Without a Man

Reviewed By Barbara Snow

Manless in Montclair
by Amy Edelman
Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN 978-0-307-23695-1

Peony in Love
by Lisa See
Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7522-2

book cover peony in love

At first glance, Manless in Montclair by Amy Edelman and Peony in Love by Lisa See are completely different types of books.

Manless in Montclair is a memoir set in current time and describes a woman's journey where she has rather extraordinary freedom and power to live independently and to openly seek relationships without stigma.

Peony in Love is a deeper and more intricate work. It is set in mid-seventeenth century China where upper-class women had their feet bound to make them attractive to men and lived in sheltered compounds. Female literacy was considered by many to be dangerous to the social structure, and arranged marriages forced women to leave their childhood homes to go to ones that were completely unknown, where it was a mother-in-law's duty to criticize her husband's wife.

Lisa See's book reveals much about the dynamics of relationships between women as well as those between women and men. What struck me about both these books, however, was the mindset of the women whose stories were being told. In both circumstances, for whatever reasons, our heroines thought that happiness lay in their relationships with a man.

Manless in Montclair is a lighter, easier read, reminiscent of many modern romances. The story became more satisfying to this reviewer as the heroine, Isabel, grew in clarity about what she truly wanted in life and how rich in relationship she was with her daughters, family and friends, even after her husband died. I was relieved as Isabel grew up. In fact, the point of the story for me is that she found the kind of relationship she wanted only after she embraced the fullness of her life and stood in the strength of who she had become, unwilling to compromise and thereby attracting the appropriate match. Isabel in Montclair shows us her increasing unwillingness to settle for limiting or unhealthy relationship as she awakens to the richness of the life she already enjoys.

Peony in Love is a thoroughly researched and riveting novel about love-sickness, a term that offends feminist sensibilities, and yet the story is really about women's struggle for autonomy and self-expression and a different kind of relationship, one in which she is valued for who she is. In this novel lovesickness was the label applied when obsession with what appeared unattainable obscured normal appetite even to death. Anorexia is not a new phenomenon.

The commonality in these writings is the focus on something external to oneself and off in the future, which does not exist--for meaning in life. Some Chinese women, even 3,000 years ago, rebelled against the narrowness of their lives, and it is understandable that their longing for freedom could be fixed on a man who promised a more open life. After Peony's death from lovesickness, we get to observe her growth as she more freely explores as a spirit the culture of her time, and gains strength and autonomy along with wisdom.

In these days when 11 million people have downloaded from the Internet Oprah TV classes with Eckart Tolle on A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, we are collectively awakening to the ways in which our thoughts affect every aspect of our daily lives. We not only can afford to be compassionate with both heroines as we observe this process in their stories, but we also need to offer ourselves the same compassion. In fact, each of these heroines effectively serves as a mirror of the ways in which our thinking structures our reality.

That Peony in Love exposes the nuances of an entire culture in the chaos of reconstruction, while Manless in Montclair shows current thought mostly through inference, reinforces the timeless consistency of our human thought. One cannot help empathizing with both Peony and Isabel in their longing for happiness. They mirror what is inside all of us, and as both grow in awareness of their own responsibility and ability to change, we readers get to notice where our thought processes align with theirs. So ultimately, both Lisa See and Amy Edelman have written books that bring us not only enjoyment in reading a good story, but also reflections on how to embrace richness in our lives.

Barbara Snow writes on the integration of spirituality with ordinary reality that enriches our experiences as human beings. Author of The Sudden Caregiver: Surrendering to Enlightenment, she brings the wisdom from years on many spiritual paths into poignantly told stories of real people. See Barbara at her website.

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