Rating: 4/5 stars.
When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.
At the age of seven, Lily has already found her laotong, a person with whom her friendship will last a lifetime. Though they are both born in the year of the horse, at first glance Snow Flower transcends anything and anyone Lily has ever known. The two girls write to each other in nu shu, the secret language of Chinese women, and their bond blossoms – together, they endure the painful practice of foot binding, the trials and tribulations of arranged marriages, and the joys and sorrows of motherhood. At the age of 80, Lily recounts their shared lives, including the tragic incident that may have tore them apart.
Many people praise two elements within Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: foot binding and nu shu. Foot binding disturbs me no matter how many times I read about it. Though it does reveal a lot about women within Chinese society and what they suffered through for status, I still had to take deep breaths and numb my mind with music when I read the scene where Lily and her sisters had their feet bound. Nu shu also adds a cultural component to the context of the story, and from the author’s note in the back of the book I could tell Lisa See researched it extensively.
Because the narrative of the book entails Lily looking back on her entire life, the writing comes across as detached and clinical at times. While Lisa See still incorporates wonderful imagery whenever Lily manages to escape the women’s chamber, her passive perspective provides us with an authentic view of women within China’s social hierarchy. Yes, it really does suck to read about the abuses women suffered at the hands of those they held closest to them. But through Lily’s experience we gain a greater fortitude against such behavior – and we learn that friendship can help us fight it.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan draws almost all of its strength from Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship. If I were to discuss it in a book club setting, foot binding, nu shu, and the role of women in Chinese society would all serve as appetizers. The laotong relationship between Snow Flower and Lily would act as my meal. It encompasses endless emotions and ideas: love, shared sadness, bittersweet humor, longing, and my favorite, redemption. Lily’s character in relation to Snow Flower and the actions they take because of each other amaze me. Within a minute I could relate their bond to affirmative action, the psychological rules of attraction, my own personal friendships, and much more.
Highly recommended for those in search of a quiet, poignant story. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is by no means a thriller, but it is profoundly touching, to say the very least.