Review: The hidden lives of women in _Snow Flower and the Secret Fan_

@Telynor (1353)
United States
April 4, 2016 6:35pm CST
In a province far from the circles of power, two little girls are born. Snow Flower and Lily are destined to a special fate, being born on the same day, at the same hour, and even down to having the same size feet. When Lily, the narrator of our tale, comes to the time when she will endure the ritual of binding her feet to turn them into 'golden lilies,' there is more than just the attempt to make her a presentable and desireable wife -- a matchmaker, Madame Wang, is also there to propose that a laotong contract be there as well -- a unique friendship between two women, who become as sworn sisters and companions in relationship that will transcend even that of a marriage. Lisa See's slender novel of women and their lives was fascinating for me to read. The narrative flows along, moving from one episode in the lives of each of these women, with first the innocence of childhood, the torment of having their feet bound, the extended rituals of courtship and marriage to strangers. There are also darker episodes, as when a younger sister dies, the not-so-veiled contempt for women, and finally, a damaging revelation and a terrible betrayal. Unable to speak of their hearts aloud, Lily and Snow Flower exchange their thoughts and emotions in the folds of a fan, in what is known as nu shu, a system of writing that is known only to women, and taught only by women in a secret world of shared correspondence. Although this novel is only about two hundred or so pages, I found myself drawn completely into a world that most Westerners know nothing about. Men are not mentioned very often in this novel, we don't even learn the name of Snow Flower's husband, the butcher who abuses her badly, or of Lily's husband til the end; and even their beloved sons are simply known in their numerical order, nor by given names. It does make the story a bit confusing in parts, but the deeper thread of the story, that of the secret world of women that exists below the surface is beautifully drawn and shown. I really enjoyed the fact that See kept any sort of archaic or coy euphemsisms out of the story, but was still able to create a world that is very different than our own. What I enjoyed the most about this one, besides the exotic locale and the author's ability to write a good story, is that the novel can be enjoyed on several levels. It can be seen simply as a tale of two women, or as a metaphor for rebellion, or as poetry. I also enjoy reading the most when I can learn something new, which in this case was the writing of women in a language an style all their own, and a good look at the Chinese society of where being an individual was frowned upon, and women viewed as being worthless, as well as the heirarchial structure as well. There are little glimpses of the outside world as well, such as the Taiping rebellion that sends Lily and Snow Flower to flee into the mountains with tragic results. While some might view the novel as being simplistic, I thought that it was very well done. The only disturbing bit are the descriptions of the footbinding procedure itself, but it is vital to the story, as I discovered. Lily's behavior, at times, is truly selfish, but there is little to stop her either as she goes careening towards the inevitable showdown with Snow Flower. And yet -- I couldn't help but feel pity for both women, struggling to survive in a world where they could never be valued for who they were, but only for what they could do. It's a remarkable novel, a quick read, and beautifully composed. I happily recommend it for anyone interested in China and its very unique culture. Another touch that I enjoyed was See's including the historical background of both the world that the girls lived in, and the amazing story of nu shu itself. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Lisa See 2005; Random House ISBN 1-4000-6028-1
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1 response
@puddleglum (1415)
• United States
5 Apr 16
This sounds like an interesting story. Thank you for the comprehensive and engaging review. The nu shu practice is entirely new to me. I also enjoy learning about other cultures, so I may need to put this book on my reading list.
1 person likes this
@Telynor (1353)
• United States
6 Apr 16
I have read quite a few of Lisa See's books, and they are excellent. She's written two, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy that just broke my heart to read, that went into the Chinese-American experience.
1 person likes this
• United States
6 Apr 16
@Telynor I feel like the topic of Asian culture is somewhat underrepresented in US literature, so this author sounds particularly interesting.
1 person likes this
@Telynor (1353)
• United States
7 Apr 16
@puddleglum She draws on her own family history for a good portion of her stories, and wrote a nonfiction book, _On Gold Mountain,_ about the Chinese-American experience.
1 person likes this