Wednesday, January 23, 2008

5. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See

This is a sad story of friendship and tragedy, set in the 19th century in a remote part of China. Author Lisa See, who is Chinese-American, did extensive research in China to provide the cultural and historical background for her story.

The narrator, Lily, is an 80-year-old widow looking back from 1903 on her long life. She describes in detail the process of her footbinding at age 7 (which killed her younger sister). She also details her education, particularly in nu shu, or “women’s [secret phonetic] writing.”

Shortly after this, a prominent matchmaker suggests for Lily a laotong, or “old same” match with a girl from the clan of a potential husband for Lily. Snow Flower shares Lily’s birthday and other characteristics, but is of higher social standing. As laotong, they can be friends for life, and a close bond develops between them over the next ten years, the only real highlight in lives lived mostly in an upstairs room. They send nu shu messages to each other on a fan when they are apart.

At 17, Lily marries into a prominent family from Snow Flower’s village, and a month later Snow Flower marries. Lily finally gets to visit Snow Flower’s family of origin, and learns the truth about her friend. Lily’s feelings of betrayal color her relationship with Snow Flower (and others) from then on, but their friendship continues. Many years later, after a typhoid outbreak and the Taiping Rebellion further changes their lives, a misinterpreted nu shu character on the fan causes even more sorrow and regret.

Descriptions of many other Chinese customs, folktales, and the numerous ceremonies and festivals were fascinating. I thought it was particularly interesting that a woman continued to live primarily with her family of origin until she first became pregnant, and even after that spent numerous festivals with her natal family. I also thought it was interesting that in their dialect, the word for “wife” is the same as the word for “guest” (page 112), the word for “child” sounds the same as that for “shoe” (page 90), and the first character in the word for “mother love” means “pain” (page 4).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a fascinating and heart-rending book that was hard to put down, with a message about true friendship that applies even today – accepting your friends they way they are, not as you wish them to be.

ETA 9/17/08: I "re-read" this book in order to lead a book club discussion on it via audiobook. The version was abridged, but did not leave out anything pertinent to the main story (with the possible exception of the fact that Lily chose - to avoid bickering - concubines for her husband late in life, to increase his prestige in their city and to please him). The narrator was Jodi Long, who does a great job expressing the emotions of the main characters, especially during foot binding, but who has a slight lisp which is distracting. This story, though, continues to grow on me, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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