Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Author: Lisa See
Released: 2005
Publisher:  Random House
Pages: 253
Rating: 4.5/5

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

I remember studying Ancient China back in elementary school & always being fascinated by its history. However, I don't remember much from all those years ago. So now when I think of Chinese history/culture, these images come to mind: (click on them to go to a Wiki article)

Reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan showed me a completely new side of China through the lives of two women - laotong, or old sames. Lisa See described in detail the atrocities of war & poverty, but most importantly, the hardships that come with being born a daughter in China. She painted a very realistic & eye-opening picture (at least I was convinced) of women in 19th century China where they were considered wortheless except for their ability to bear sons. It showed an oftentimes startling view of how women were treated & what was expected of them. They were forbidden an education, which led them to using a secret written language, nu shu, to pass stories, poems & messages along to other women. See's vivid description of foot binding (a whole chapter is dedicated to it) left me with my head between my hands, concentrating on my breathing, so I literally wouldn't throw up. (I've never had a book get that sort of reaction out of me!)

See, through her deep & detailed writing was able to beautifully & heartbreakingly portray the relationships of women with those around them: their mothers who showed mother-love (tough love is how I interpreted it), fathers, siblings, husbands, sworn-sisters, matchmakers & laotong. The language used throughout the novel conveyed the poetic & symbolic Chinese tongue, which I greatly appreciated. It made me feel as though I were witnessing the true lives of those from another time & culture instead of getting a fictionalized account of China written by a tourist. It felt genuine.

I also felt a great connection to the main women in the story, Lily & Snow Flower, two friends whose friendship & laotong bond was brought about through unlikely circumstances. They were strong & devoted women in their own way, & through them, the reader was able to feel the significance of such a relationship in a male-dominated world.


"For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me — as a girl and later as a woman — to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life."
~ Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


TheBookGirl said...

I read Lisa See for the first time this year -- Shanghai Girls -- and I loved it. Your wonderfully descriptive review of this one makes me believe I would like it as well. Thanks!

Adriana said...

I read this book a few years ago and I felt the same way. The foot binding was definitely sad and scary. Lisa See did a really great job at describing it. The friendship between Lily and Snow Flower was so sweet it just broke my heart at how it ended. Great review.