Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Julie's Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Summary: See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well. ~amazon.com

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel is an excellent book about love, friendship and life. We learn Lily's story through her eyes at 80 years old and reflecting back on her life and even though she could paint herself "rosy", I didn't feel like she did. I felt she gave an honest account of her laotong relationship with Snow Flower. This relationship started when they were 7 years old and last their lifetime's. It is an intense and yet innocent relationship when they are younger and only grows into a more mature friendship as the women marry and have children. There are many trials and tribulations for both of the women as we go through the journey of their lives. There are even a few twists and revelations that I didn't see coming.

There were 2 extremely vivid parts in this book for me. The first, is when Ms. See describes in great detail the foot binding process. I literally felt sick to my stomach while reading this and couldn't even imagine the pain these young girls were put through to gain beauty. It's amazing how differences in culture defines beauty. To us Westerners foot binding is seen as a deformity and cruel, but to the Chinese it was a way to gain status and marry into a better family. It was an important stage in a young girl's development.

The second was when Snow Flower and Lily have to retreat to the mountains to outlive a raid on Snow Flower's village as China changes government and people rebel. The descriptions of what happened to them emotionally and physically is astounding. It's amazing what people will persevere through by sheer will.

As with any book about friendship, there was a huge misunderstanding that leaves Lily with much guilt and has her trying to atone for her mistake the rest of her life. I don't want to give away much because well that would ruin the book. I think all women can identify with this to some degree. How many of us have read an email and thought that there was one meaning in it when really the author meant another? I know I have and it lead to a 6 month misunderstanding and miscommunication between my best friend and I. Thank goodness we talked it out but I think these things are quite common. Not only in personal correspondence via email but also business. Email is the 21st century version of Nu Shu in some respects.

Ms. See has a wonderful writing style. Her attention to detail is tremendous and her history research is quite impressive. This is the 2nd book of hers I have read. I previously read Peony in Love: A Novel(Julie's Review) and give that a slight edge over Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel because I found the story a bit more intriguing. That being said I can't wait to find out what Lisa See has in store for her readers next.

Final Take: 4.75/5

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