Genres: Drama, Fiction, World or cultural
Setting: Asia > China
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Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a wonderful story about the friendship between two women, laotongs, who endure a lifetime of trials and tribulations enduring the pressures of their culture and traditions during the 1800’s. I read this book as part of the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge and the Monthly Keyword Challenge for January.
Lily and Snow Flower are two young girls when they first meet and make a deep, contracted commitment to be forever friends, or laotongs. While most women belong to a group of “sworn sisters” whose friendships dissolve when they marry, laotangs commit to love one another until they die. Ms. See masterfully describes the love between these two friends that are tested under the most trying of circumstances and when appearances are not always as they seem.
This book cover so many themes as it travels through these girls’ lives. Living up to the steep expectations of their family during a time when women are considered inferior to the men of the family. Women are seen as weak and a burden to their natal family. “[Lily’s mother] looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters – as a temporary visitor.” Once married, they are expected to cater to their husbands and in-laws needs. Lily and Snow Flower send messages in ladies’ secret writing, called nu shu, on their secret fan.
Lily and Snow Flower’s paths diverge once they marry and have their own families. They go to the top and bottom of their class in the county. While it is “beneath Lily” to visit Snow Flower, they must find ways to continue their friendship. Their friendship must endure the test of time, births, deaths, illnesses, war, and cultural expectations.
Setting & Culture
The book is set in the villages of China in the 1800’s. Lily grows up in Puwei which is described as a farming village in Yongming County, “the county of Everlasting Brightness”. They cultivate rice, cotton, taro and other crops. Around 6 years old, girls of the village endure the painful process of footbinding, where their feet are broken so they have small feet (“golden lillies”), the smaller and the more desirable to prospective husbands.
The story details the matchmaking process and the weddings that last for several days and are steeped in beautiful and simple traditions to show the young bride how she is loved by her friends and natal family before going to live with her in-laws. The story progresses through Tongkou, Shexia, the Temple of Gupo and the mountains nearby for retreat, and effectively portrays the stark contrasts between the lifestyles of people in each.
To have a good life, women want to have a good match for a husband who is not of her own choosing and have sons. “Sons are the foundation of a woman’s self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value.” Sons and fathers are esteemed, educated and allowed to live on the main floor or outer chamber of the house while daughters are raised in the top floor or inner chamber where they can’t be seen and taught to do housekeeping and embroidery so they can be good wives. Men even have a different written language than women. They live separate lives and come together only when women are needed to serve their husbands.
I learned so much from this book about early Chinese culture and lifestyle. I was entranced by the different time and world and it made me appreciative of how women are treated today in comparison.
“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.”
“All I knew was that footbinding would make me more manageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life –a son.”
“You may be desperate, but never let anyone see you as anything less than a cultivated woman.”
“‘A museum is a temple of knowledge,” my father told me, “a lit lamp that sends its rays into the darkness, the proof of the infinite variety of life.”
This is an amazing book and I love that we see Chinese culture throughout each phase of Lily’s entire life. It’s an emotional journey worth the trip. This would make a great book club book, so many issues and themes to discuss.
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