Thursday, 4 October 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I've decided it's time to review a book on here, and I just finished re-reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Recently made into a movie, this book had initially caught my eye at Costco, but I didn't purchase it until a few months ago. My love for historical fiction inspired this pick, as well as the chance to peek at a culture with which I'm generally unfamiliar. The story is set in 19th century China, and is about two girls who are bound together as laotong, or "old sames." This prestigious joining into a life-long friendship raises the prospects of Lily, a second unwanted daughter from a "so-so" family, enabling her to raise in society. She and her friend Snow Flower, a girl from family in better circumstances, communicate through nu shu, the secret writing of women that men are not supposed to see or know about. These messages are passed along on their fan, and chronicle their journies through the difficult stages of their lives.

Immediately, the author lets us know through her first-person narration of the character Lily, that misfortune and misunderstanding will overtake Lily and Snow Flower. Born as girls into a culture that only values sons, these "useless branches" of the family tree endure footbinding, marriage, childbirth, political unrest, and changes in fortune. However, these obstacles are nothing to the unravelling of their cherished friendship that is based on misunderstanding. Knowing this will happen makes the earlier passages of the perfect soul match between the girls the more poignant to read.

Lisa See does a wonderful job detailing the lives of these girls, with each section of the book following the traditional life stages of Chinese girls. The chapter detailing footbinding was hard to read, but eye opening for me. Though I knew this practice was cruel, the way it was actually carried out was unknown to me. However, See not only faithfully depicts the agonizing process of footbinding, she shows us its significance in Snow Flower and Lily's society. The quality of a women's bound feet, as well as whether her feet are bound or not, said a lot about her character, her desirability, and her prospects in life. It is Lily's "perfect" feet that change her destiny, as well as that of her family.

One thing I enjoy about this book is that See doesn't superimpose 21st century beliefs on 19th century China. I find this is often a problem with historical fiction, where the characters act and think in a far more liberated manner than they would ever have done in that era. Although progressive thinking is not entirely missing from classic works of fiction, it's often glaringly obvious when an author's beliefs supercede that of a realistic character of that time period. See avoids this pitfall, and although Lily and Snow Flower long for some control over their lives, they accept their limitations, and try to work through them in a traditional manner, using their nu shu to give themselves voices.

The style of writing is easy to read, and at times almost feels poetic in its flow. Lily's voice, spoken as an 80 year old widow looking back on her life, is convincing, but provides enough suspense by being first-person. We don't know the motives of the other characters, or what Snow Flower is thinking, until Lily herself finds out.

I really enjoyed this book, and have since read everything else that Chapters carries by Lisa See. I recommend it as a good read that goes deeper than "chick lit" often does. Well worth picking up. How have you found it, if you've read this book? What are you reading now that you're really enjoying?


  1. I love this author as well. The first one I read by her was Peony and I learned more about the beliefs of the Chinese around death. Fascinating. I think I've read most of hers. I did not know Snow Flower was a movie. By the way, I find your background makes your posts difficult to read. I read them on my e-mail, otherwise I probably couldn't.

    1. Thanks for the note Jane. I'll change that. Peony in Love is also great.

  2. I'm sure you'd love the book The Secret Daughter (I think that's the name). Come borrow it next time you're here. It tells of another Chinese family who give birth to girls rather than the coveted boys and their fates. It's grim but also uplifting and I'm sure it would keep you interested. This book sounds great. I'd love to borrow it from you in return.

  3. I have read Secret Daughter, and will review it in the future. It's actually about an Indian family, but it is still interesting