"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The Great Readers of M read this book for their March selection. It was actually chosen by me and I do have to say it was just beautiful. I cried my eyes out, yet I didn't find it depressing. I learned so much about the Chinese culture in the 19th century while soaking in every word of this rich story. Even though I read at night to help put me to sleep, it was hard to put this book down for a second.

Lisa See's style in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is much like the strokes in the women's secret writing described in the book: flowing, personal, and nostalgic. This novel describes nineteenth century China when young girls' feet were still bound and their lives were determined by the outcome of that experience. Obedience was the ultimate characteristic in a girl and woman, and this was represented by their feet, which were crushed and bound until an ideal seven centimeters - about 3" long. To compare, I wear a perfect shoe size 6, which is considered small in today's world, but my foot measures just about 9" long.

The theme of the book is relationships and Lisa See explores the relationship between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and the most important in this case, friendship, more specifically arranged friendships between a laotong, or an "old same". Lily, the narrator, is telling the story as a guilt-ridden old woman. She reflects on her past and the experiences she shared with her laotong, Snow Flower.

Although at the start the two seem to be completely different due to their social classes, they find a way to love each other and share their deepest secrets by way of a fan and the women's secret writing referred to as nu shu. The novel begins with the two girls finishing their childhood separately but at age six they have their feet bound and they come together.

At this time in the nineteenth century in China, a foot binding was considered the most important event in a young girl's life. See describes the binding so vividly that I myself was in pain, but was also very much intrigued by that part of Chinese culture (I later looked up pictures of a bound foot and to my surprise found it looked exactly as it was described, a lily).

As women, the pair continues to be inseparable and the connection they share touched me. Together they go through the pains of handling their in-laws and meeting their husbands, which ironically is what jeopardizes their friendship. When the new relationships with their husbands become a major part of each laotong's life and Lily finds herself getting competitive about becoming pregnant with a son, a change in character seems evident in both women.

It seems both characters swap personalities. Lily becomes harder, stronger, and surer of herself. Snow Flower on the other hand, retreats into what seems like a weaker character. Although Lily seems heartless nearing the end of the novel, See made me sympathize with both characters by showing how vulnerable both women truly were.

The novel, although it describes a completely different culture and set of times from modern day, I found, was very relatable. The pressures on women and their duties are different, but the importance and sensitivity of friendships is still a significant part of a girl and a woman's life. See combines history and modern day, and reality and fiction carefully and beautifully making the novel exciting and absorbing.

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