Books

UPDATED 07/09/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/09/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

Peony in Love
By Lisa See | [4 stars]
CRITIC'S CHOICE
REVIEWED BY SUE CORBETT
FICTION

It's no small feat to write a convincing work of historical fiction with a main character who's a ghost, but See has done it with this engrossing novel. Peony, an only child in 17th-century China, is betrothed to a stranger when her father stages an opera at their villa in honor of her 16th birthday. Overcome by the emotions the opera evokes, she seeks fresh air and has (for the period) a scandalous encounter with a handsome poet—conversing about the opera's heroine, an anorexic who starves herself rather than marry without love. Seeing parallels to her own sheltered existence, Peony becomes obsessed with the opera and the limits placed on her by patriarchal rule.

See's research is evident in the vivid way she brings Peony's world to life (including the gut-wrenching process of foot-binding) but her themes remain contemporary: the power of words, the desire to be heard and to be loved. Perhaps the most satisfying part of this rich work, however, is the intricate portrait of the afterlife, a place that sends some spirits to eternal rest, condemns others to wander the earth as "hungry ghosts" and allows ancestors like Peony's grandmother to have a say in what happens to the families they've left behind. As in her bestselling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See delivers another thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human.

Slummy Mummy
By Fiona Neill | [3 stars]
REVIEWED BY MICHELLE GREEN
FICTION

London mom Lucy Sweeney wears her husband's pj's on the morning school run, dyes her own eyebrows (with disastrous results) and has made peace with the pudginess that set in after her third son was born. Sex is a distant memory, and her single girlfriends' chatter about erotic games and "epiphanies" seems impossibly exotic. But don't feel too sorry for the heroine of this featherweight romp, which (like so many others) is descended from Bridget Jones's Diary. Here is the backhandedly charming Bridget 10 years on, still caught between Hugh Grant, in the guise of aspiring adulterer Robert Bass, a.k.a. Sexy Domesticated Dad, and Colin Firth, as Lucy's hyperorganized hubby.

Juicy fantasies abound, as do meaningful looks and shameless plot contrivances: Lucy helps her friend Emma break into the family mansion of a high roller who has taken her as his mistress; later, his impeccable wife—whose children happen to go to school with our heroine's—sobs to Lucy about her husband's affair. Slummy Mummy is a bit of a mess and too long by half, but maybe that's the point; Neill's diverting domestic farce reminds us that the most remarkable aspect of enduring love is its patience and complexity.

The Bright Side of Disaster
By Katherine Center | [3/5 stars]
FICTION

Though Jenny Harris, the heroine of Center's light, charming debut novel, suffers the indignity of having her fiancé desert her just days before their daughter Maxie is born, she's luckier than she knows: A mercurial rich boy with a hankering to be a rock star, Dean has made it clear that when the late-night feedings roll around, he'll be in a smoky club pounding his guitar.

In this snappy romance set in Houston, Center's single mom gets a chance to prove her own strength, and to lean on an improbably helpful cast of characters like her savvy decorator mom, painfully honest best friend and a slightly mysterious man who swoops into her life "like a superhero." And when Dean swaggers back into town, trailed by his Chanel-clad mother? Let's just say that Jenny finds out that her newly attentive ex isn't quite what he seems—and that her mom threatens to write the word "bastard" in nail polish on his car. The Bright Side of Disaster is a bit of a fairy tale in the end, but one that's cleverly told and uncommonly appealing.

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