Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See

This is one of those books I know I should read, but never got around to it.  In the back of my mind I thought I wouldn't like it.  Was I ever wrong.  I was pushed to read Snow Flower as part of the Global Reading Challenge as my Asian selection and I really wish I would have read it sooner.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is beautifully written - drawing the reader in and captivating your attention with fluid and descriptive storytelling.  It is the story of two laotung sisters in 18th century China, detailing the trails and tribulations of the girls individually and their relationship together.  It is narrated by Lily and told at the end of her life as she has entered her 80th year of life.

The laotung relationship between Lily and Snow Flower has no American equivalent.  It is at its core, a "marriage" of two women who share eight common traits.  Their purpose is to the burdens of being women in Chinese society - from footbinding, to marriage, to cruel mother in laws, to births and deaths of children and if they are lucky, a long widowhood together.  From the beginning the laotung relationship between Lily and Snow Flower is based on deception and this ultimately breaks down this sacred connection.

What I liked most about this book was the detailed look into the lives of Chinese women in the 18th century.  Never before have I read such a description of the horrors of footbinding.  Lisa See details the entire process from the first wrappings through the breaking and healing of the bones.  She address the dangers, even death, that can result from the process.  She returns to the consequences of footbinding throughout the lives of the girls - how the size of their  feet can help make  a better marriage.  The constant cleaning rituals necessary to prevent infections through out their lives.  And just how limited the lives of women are because they can't walk long distances on such small, unbalanced feet.  And yet, given all of this, women in China continued to subject their daughters to this treatment for generations.

Another important Chinese cultural practice that is well developed in the book is the unequal treatment of men and women.  From the beginning of the novel, it is obvious the young girls in the story are a burden.  Everything they are taught in in preparation to get rid of them in marriage to the higest bidder.  Once in their in laws homes the girls are at the mercy of their mother in law.  Some get lucky, some do not.  As the lowest member of the household most of the work falls to them.  If they are fortuitous enough to give birth to a son, their lot in life may improve.

It is because of the shared hardships that Chinese women developed their own secret, written langauge - nu shu.  Kept secret and hidden from men, Chinese women used nu shu to share their joys and sorrows throughout their lives.  Nu shu is the basis for a laotung relationship and it is through nu shu and the secret fan that Snow Flower and Lily share their lives together.

There is nothing in this book that I did  not like.  I highly recommend it.  Don't let this one sit on your shelf for years like I did. 

Rating - A+

1 comment:

  1. I have had this one hanging around forever too - there are just too many books!!!