Written by: Lisa See
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Random House
February 2006, $14.99
Genre: Historical Fiction
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 have always loved books like Memoirs of a Geisha, anything by Amy Tan and historical fiction set in Japan and China. It was one of the books I bought at the library sale after Aly recommended it. Since I spent a good portion of this month in a cast (I broke my wrist at the end of December which required a brand new plate and some pins...part of the way to becoming a Cylon) and not being able to do a whole lot, I decided I should pick it up. Plus I have been a little bored with the urban fantasy genre of late and needed to try something new. Plus Foot binding = painful. So does breaking your wrist. It was ninjas by the way. Ice-skating ninjas.
Snow Flower and the Secret fan begins melodramatically with an aged Lily telling not only her story, but that of her ‘laotong’ Snow Flower. Set in the early 1800’s Lily grew up without many things, but like all young girls she is destined for an arranged marriage which her family can only hope will be advantageous to all. It is a world where daughters are seen as a burden, where a Chinese woman must be subservient to any man in her life, and where the brutal practice of foot binding was one way to improve your standing. Lily has a brutally ambitious figure in her mother, as one fellow book blogger put it, the equivalent of a stage mother from Toddlers and Tiaras. When a matchmaker suggests that Lily will have golden lilies for her feet (something you tried to aspire to) Lily’s mother sees an opportunity. At such a young age Lily’s feet are brutally broken, tied and stunted. But there is a sparkle of sunshine during these years. The Matchmaker also forms an arranged friendship called a laotong with a young girl of higher social standing. This special friendship of ‘old sames’ means that Lily and Snow Flower are formally committed to being best friends for life. Lily and Snow Flower grow up, using an embroidered fan to tell about their losses and triumphs, of marriage, childbirth and war. The story unfolds into a beautiful tale of love, loss, friendship, betrayal and atonement.
Things I loved: I did enjoy this book. It was a quick enjoyable read. See recounts the foot binding process in a horrific way which forced me to wiki it much to my horror later. I loved and dreaded and cringed as I read about the foot binding process. How it was once considered a most favorable trait despite that the women could hardly walk still astounds me. It is a horrible practice, one that still continues though I cannot fathom why. See holds no punches here and for that I am grateful actually. I learned something new as I had only known a peripheral view of foot-binding and the novel discusses it with many details.
As I think about the novel, I cannot imagine growing up in a world where women were viewed with such disregard and servitude was their life. And yet as women we wear high heels, bind ourselves in a variety of lingerie and hold ourselves to such strong and sometimes impossible standards when it comes to beauty that I can relate and sympathize to some degree. What society finds beautiful can deeply influence a person’s life. This theme is something that we can all relate to. Just as we can the importance of a friendship between two women. These women were denied so many things and were so isolated that they clung to each other just to stay sane. They rebelled social mores with their secret language, with their wit and with their closeness to one another.
Once I had read the last page I knew I wanted to learn embroidery and perhaps teach my future daughter, hypothetical as she may be at this point, how to do it as well. I longed for a nice visualization of the fan that Lily and Snow Flower shared.
Things I didn't love so much: The characters are very stereotypical and superficial and while they are prominent in the story, there lacks any real character depth. Lily is bound by tradition, her view on sex kind of hilarious for a modern woman such as myself, and her views on the world or so narrow and naive I find them hard to believe. Plus how can you like a woman who does what she does in the latter part of the book. But I enjoy reading Lily and Snow Flower’s stories. In some ways I can see how Lily, a young woman who yearned for her mother’s love and approval, who gave her heart away so rarely turns into a hardened older woman and yet I wanted to see that overall journey and have it make sense. Because it didn't. Lily goes from a shy, caring and sensitive friend to a bitter and judgmental woman the higher her status gets. Why? She won. Even if she longed for atonement by the end of the story I didn't care. I just wasnt as emotionally invested as I wish I could have been with Lily.
I cant really say it was well written book. While an engaging story, this is a book where it is more about the journey than it is really about any character development. You learn about foot binding, of customs and rituals and an overall history: the research being quite on pointe. But the Joy Luck Club this is not for me. And yet I cannot fault it too much as I was entertained. It was a quick read that was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
I strongly suggest to all do not see the film. It bears little resemblance to the book other than the title.
Buy or Borrow: Buy. Despite a few flaws, the strength of this book is with the details and the history.
Part of: Standalone.
Also Recommended: I would recommend anything by Amy Tan my favorite being the Joy Luck Club.
3.25 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks