Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is my book club’s July selection, but it’s been on my to-read shelf for some time now, so I’d have gotten around to it eventually no matter what. I know that in previous reviews I’ve mentioned (probably excessively so) my love for British period pieces. You should also know that I am quite fond of Asian period pieces. It’s not that I lack any interest in modern-day China or Japan or any of the other nations of the Far East, I just love thinking about the past. How did people live? What did they eat? What did they wear? How did women fare? Yes this novel is fiction, but my experience with See’s writing indicates she does quite a bit of research out of respect for her Chinese heritage, so I was eager to delve into another of See’s novels.
Snow Flower is the story of Lily and Snow Flower, two young women in mid-19th century China. China at this time is a place where daughters are not valued, at least not as anything aside from possessions and unpaid servants in their own homes. Lily is the third of four children in a lower middle class farming family. She never really feels her mother’s love and this deprivation will turn out to be her entire life’s goal – to seek out someone whom she can truly love and who will love her back. Around the age of six, a local fortune teller is brought to her home to help decide the best time to bind Lily’s feet; it’s during this reading that he notices Lily’s beautiful feet and decides to enlist the assistance of Madame Wang, a renowned matchmaker from the nearby town Tongkuo. Wang sees potential for a match between Lily and another young girl from Tongkuo – they will be laotong, or “old sames.” The bond between two women considered laotong is deeper than that between husband and wife and Lily is incredibly excited to have such an honor.
Lily first meets Snow Flower when they are both seven, and she feels an instant desire to make this new girl love her like no one ever has. She feels like Snow Flower comes from a much more highly-regarded family but vows to work extra hard to overcome any flaws Snow Flower may see in this. The two girls become fast friends and communicate on a fan using nu shu, a secret language women of the time used to write without interference from men.
The novel begins as Lily is 80 and looking back on her long life, and what we get isn’t necessarily anything all that new in the realm of Asian-themed literature, as far as my experience goes. I really liked the book despite it not being all that ground-breaking. I’d say that the first thing I appreciated in this novel is the background and details See includes about day-to-day life during the 1800s in China. I’ve never studied China outside of reading books like this or watching martial arts movies, so my knowledge of the culture could fill a thimble. The explanations of the rituals, family customs, dress, and gender roles were fascinating. Women were raised to be married out to an acceptable man, at which point they’d spend at most three years still living with their ‘natal’ family and making conjugal visits to their husband’s home. They had to bring their own food, so that they wouldn’t drain their new family’s resources unnecessarily! Once the three years after the marriage is up, or the woman gets pregnant, she makes the permanent move into her husband’s home, where she is ranked low on the totem pole and must kowtow to the needs of an often hyper-critical mother-in-law. Why were they like this? Because it’s tradition. The depth to which Chinese culture was steeped in tradition is amazing in this novel.
I should warn you that foot binding is a large part of this book. While it’s only described in detail early in the novel (the girls’ feet are bound at age seven!!!!), Lily’s perfectly bound feet are what earn her a lucky marriage match and general admiration throughout the rest of her life. And when I mention her feet, I’m talking THREE CENTIMETERS LONG. The ‘length of a thumb’ is how she describes it. I looked up the process on Wikipedia and I regretted it immediately. Consider yourself warned.
Probably the most compelling part of the novel isn’t really the plot or even the surrounding characters; it’s the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower. As a woman it’s always interesting to explore the dynamics of female friendships and bonds: how they are created, how they are dissolved, etc. I don’t know if it’s really a good thing, but a lot of what happens between the two women is familiar. I didn’t personally make any contracts with my best friend or have the rigid societal conventions imposed upon me like these women did, but the essentials can definitely be seen mirrored in friendships of women everywhere. I don’t want to simplify it by using that cliché that we can be our own worst enemies, we tear each other down, etc. But some of this is borne from truth – I have had envious feelings toward friends, or at times been disinclined to look beyond my own personal projections on another to see what my friend is really feeling or thinking. The women in this novel do love each other, but so much of their time is fraught with misunderstandings and secrecy. It’s a little disheartening to find so much similarity between myself and the two main characters. They’re not bad women, especially considering the way they have been raised and are forced to act at a time when girls were often tossed aside as easily as day-old bread. It’s just that the mistakes they make in how they treat each other, all due to some innate (mostly subconscious) need to compete with one another, are a little too relevant even today, at least for me. I take comfort in the fact that a lot of the stuff that rang true for me was also stuff that isn’t really present so much in my adult friendships.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is definitely a thought-provoking read for any woman, and really for any man looking for insight into the inner workings of female relationships.