I had a number of readers tell me how much they loved this book. They added that it was one of those works that stays with you long after you've finished it. I must echo their sentiments, for this lovely work has lingered in my thoughts two days after I finished it.
Lisa See, the author, put in an extensive amount of research and care into this work. It is not just a work about the relationship between two young 19th century Chinese girls, but a fascinating look into Chinese culture of that era. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about such things as the treatment of women in society, how marriages were arranged, and the importance and symbolism of footbinding.
Wikipedia has an excellent page on footbinding, which you can read by clicking here. NPR also broadcast an excellent report on the eldest survivors of footbinding, which you can find by clicking here. I need to warn you, though, some of the descriptions of footbinding are graphic, and not necessarily for the faint of heart. Google Images has some photos of bound feet, but I have chosen not to put them on here out of respect for those who may be uncomfortable looking at such pictures.
That having been said, the novel opens with the main character, Lily, describe her preparations for her feet to be bound. A diviner and a matchmaker arrive at her house to meet her and start to arrange for her marriage prospects. Lily is seven years old.
The matchmaker, Madame Wang, determines that Lily is an excellent candidate for a laotong relationship. A laotong relationship exists between two girls from different villages and lasts their entire lives. This is not the same as a sworn sisterhood in Chinese culture, which are made up of several girls and last until one of the sisters marries. According to this article, "These relationships were based not only on proximity, but also upon auspicious astrology, numerology and even matching the size and shape of the young “sisters” feet. They would go to festivals together, and were often closer to one another than to their blood-related sisters."
Lily is matched with a young woman named Snow Flower, who sends her first letter on a silk fan. The letter is written in a secret language called nu shu, which Chinese women created so that men, who were the ones who were taught how to read and write traditional characters, would not be able to decipher it. Snow Flower eventually meets Lily at her home, and visits frequently over the years. The two girls grow into womanhood, and learn how to embroider, cook, and write together.
Snow Flower lives in a village called Tongkou. This is where Lily will live once she is married; Snow Flower has been arranged to marry a man in a different village, and the two women will not live in the same village together. Although Snow Flower has visited Lily's home many times, Lily has not visited Snow Flower's. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, says that the reason for this is that it would not be wise for Lily to see her future husband before her wedding day, even though she won't meet him until then.
However, one day Lily decides to pay a visit to Snow Flower's home. I won't reveal all of the details of this visit, but Lily discovers that Snow Flower has not been truthful about her background. This instills in Lily a sense of mistrust in her laotong. How will she know if Snow Flower is truthful in the future?
Snow Flower begs Lily for her forgiveness, and the two women marry and start families. As Lily bears her children and serves her husband and in-laws, Snow Flower struggles in hers. The two women remain faithful to each other, sending messages on handkerchiefs as well as on their special fan, but their destinies are turning out to be much different than they ever expected. Lily's sense of mistrust deepens, but Snow Flower can't understand what has happened to create the tension existing in their relationship.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a compelling story about the relationship between two women who promised to be lifelong friends and sisters, and what happens when misunderstandings occur. This is a book that every woman can relate to; I'm sure every woman has had relationships with female friends that have had their share of conflict and misunderstanding. Sometimes conflict with our friends is so much more painful than what we may experience with family members.
For me, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was just as much a tome about Chinese culture as it was about the unique relationship between Lily and Snow Flower. I learned a lot of history, but it was the lessons of the heart that the two women learned that will stay with me.
This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 Read Your Own Books Challenge, as well as my 2009 Summer Vacation Challenge. As always, click the buttons in the sidebar to read all of the archived lists!
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