Saturday, January 05, 2008

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I wrote the following review for our FCC (Families with Children from China) newsletter, and thought I would share it here:

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) is an absorbing and intimate novel set in 19th century China, narrated by Lily, who reflects on her childhood and marriage in remote villages. Looking back over her life, throughout which she adhered to the domestic and feminine expectations of womanhood for that time, she sees her history in parallel with that of her laotong, or “old-same,” a relationship between two girls conscripted by their families and meant to last a lifetime. Lily’s laotong, whom she meets through a matchmaker when she is seven years old, is Snow Flower, a girl from a wealthier family and considered a very good match for someone of Lily’s class.

Throughout their lives, the two girls communicate via a fan, the leaves of which they fill with a feminine version of written Chinese known as nu shu. Through this fan, they plan their meetings, celebrations, rituals of marriage and motherhood, and communicate in hard times that a laotong is always there, in mind and spirit, if not in person. Through a miscommunication of language and syntax, it is this same fan that drives a wedge between them later in their lives.

See, whose ancestry is Chinese, spent a good deal of time in Jiangyong County in Hunan, researching and interviewing to obtain insight and insure the accuracy of her fictional tale. Indeed, it is the precise images of daily life for women in rural 19th century China that fascinate the most, especially the chapter on footbinding, which spares not a single gruesome detail of this process. Traditionally, a girl of six or seven ensured a fortuitous marriage by forcibly reducing her feet to a mere three inches in length, thus hobbling her for life. Her feet became “golden lilies,” considered perfect in their allure. Reading about the process was particularly heartbreaking because it was conducted in secrecy entirely by mothers and their daughters—women who could barely walk inflicting the same fate on the next generation. I couldn’t help stealing frequent glances at my own daughter, who, at three, has huge feet that I hope will grow even more impressive.

The most moving aspect of the novel, as might be expected, is the relationship between the two laotongs, who meet shortly after their footbinding at an annual festival. They are instantly fascinated with one another, even though Lily is quieter and Snow Flower is exuberant and opinionated. Over the years, their fates evolve through the course of their domestic training, engagements, marriage, pregnancies, raising children, and always, the terrible urgency to demonstrate their own worth through the production of sons. Over time, they both endure challenges, and experience joys (but few of the latter) as they perform their obligations as women. When they can’t visit each other, the one place they can confide their feelings is in letters and the ever-growing narrative of the fan.

The book shifts perspective between old Lily, who at 80, has far exceeded the adult life span of her day, and young Lily, who marks the milestones of her youth with her laotong. The novel, though it follows a life linked with tragedies, is never self-pitying in tone, since its narrator accepts her fate. I was riveted by this glimpse into a world of women that, from my perspective, is almost impossible to comprehend.

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