Thursday, September 27, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Book: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Country: China

Description: A language kept a secret for a thousand years forms the backdrop for an unforgettable novel of two Chinese women whose friendship and love sustains them through their lives.

This absorbing novel – with a storyline unlike anything Lisa See has written before – takes place in 19th century China when girls had their feet bound, then spent the rest of their lives in seclusion with only a single window from which to see.  Illiterate and isolated, they were not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions. But in one remote county, women developed their own secret code, nu shu – "women's writing" – the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world.  Some girls were paired as "old-sames" in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives.  They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
An old woman tells of her relationship with her "old-same," their arranged marriages, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood—until a terrible misunderstanding written on their secret fan threatens to tear them apart. With the detail and emotional resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha ,Snow Flower and the Secret Fan delves into one of the most mysterious and treasured relationships of all time—female friendship. (from
My first descriptive word for this book would be sad or poignant. It was about the lives of women in China--with their feet bound and in a strictly traditional, patriarchal society, they had very little freedom. Marriages were arranged, girls were thought of as practically worthless. The narrator, Lily, describes her life, from her girlhood and foot-binding, her marriage, and finally her old age. The novel certainly revealed a dark side of Chinese society that I'd never thought about before. I suppose every society has its dark side, but I still found it horrible. Perhaps it was because it was occurring in another culture, and I fell more free to criticize it, or because I haven't grown accustomed to its evils.

One of the major themes in the novel was food-binding. It was something that all the women in the novel accepted despite the pain--not only to themselves as girls, but also of having to do that to their daughters when they were 6 or 7. But what about the things we do today for beauty--anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery. 

More than anything, the major focus of the novel, and certainly Lily's retelling of her life, was her friendship with Snow Flower. Typically in China, or at least in the area being described in the novel, a woman would have a group of friends (a group of sworn sisters) that would change with the different stages of her life--one for girlhood, one for old age, and so on. But Lily and Snow Flower are laotongs, which means that they will be friends for life, able to send each other letters and gifts at all ages, and meet every year at the same place.  

An emotional roller coaster, but very good. The emotions of this book were very strong, but ultimately too pessimistic for me. Perhaps I've just lived a lucky life, but life isn't all sadness. Or maybe it's because I have a wonderful God who gives me joy all the time!

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