Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Posted by nliakos on February 19, 2016
by Lisa See (Random House 2005; ISBN 1-4000-6028-1)
I came to this wonderful novel via the movie of the same name. But Wayne Wang took Lisa See’s story of the love between Lily and Snow Flower in 19th-century China, and superimposed on it a modern story of two friends (confusingly played by the same actresses). In contrast, the book focuses solely on Lily and Snow Flower, who are matched as laotong (“old sames”–girls whose friendship will last all their lives, a custom of the Yao people of Yongming (now Jiangyong) County, in Hunan Province) when they are seven years old, and whose relationship endures despite tragedies, a rebellion and months spent hiding out in the mountains in the middle of winter, and a terrible misunderstanding which almost succeeds in breaking them apart. The story is told in the first person from Lily’s point of view, writing as an old woman looking back on a long life, with both delight and remorse.
Lily and Snow Flower are very appealing characters, and I loved following their stories. However, the descriptions of the local customs such as foot binding; the many festivals which marked the passing of time and gave married women the right to visit their natal families; engagement and marriage; nushu, the secret “women’s writing” which permits Lily and Snow Flower, who are not literate in the ideographic “men’s writing”, to stay in touch over the years; and the role of women in the home (they were confined to “the inner realm”, an upstairs room or the kitchen all their lives) and in society (“the outer realm”) in that part of China during that epoch. It makes for fascinating reading, and at times seems more like an anthropological treatise than a novel–except for the story of the two women, which pulls the reader along. I was never tempted to skip the descriptive sections because the cultural parts are so interesting, even though the hardships tolerated by these women are beyond our comprehension, looking back from our perspective in this feminist era where we at least pay lip service to female equality, even if it has not been completely achieved.
The second chapter, “Footbinding,” is an appallingly detailed description of how little girls were subjected to this horrific practice by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and older sisters. It resulted in the deaths of many of them due to infection and rendered them unable to walk normally for the rest of their lives–all in the pursuit of sex appeal and marriageability. It’s not an easy read. It made my feet ache just to imagine it.
I enjoyed the movie, and it’s a visual feast, but the book is so much better! Thanks to Vicki for introducing me to both.