Friday, February 27, 2009

Co-review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, is a quiet, contemplative tale of two friends raised in 19th century China. Their friendship is their great joy in life, providing solace during the many miseries they suffer as oppressed females in a society that views them as worthless. They communicate through nu shu, a secret writing system created and used solely by women, and the story is rich with details of this strange culture and its many beauties and horrors.

The story is told from the perspective of Lily. She is the daughter of a poor farmer, but is blessed with feet that have the potential to be the most beautifully bound in the county. (Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder in this instance, however, because the descriptions of footbinding are about enough to make the reader ill.) These special feet give her the opportunity to form a special friendship with Snow Flower, a girl of much higher standing. Over the years Snow Flower teaches Lily to be more refined in anticipation of marriage to an important man, and Lily teaches Snow Flower the daily household tasks she's never needed to know in her life of privilege.

When Lily marries, however, she learns that she's been deceived about the true nature of Snow Flower's position. Snow Flower's family was once respectable, but had fallen into misfortune and poverty and she faces marriage to a lowly butcher. Lily's prospects continue to improve (she eventually becomes the most respected woman in the county), but Snow Flower faces poverty, abuse, and a lifetime of loss and despair. As we see their friendship change through the years, we also get an intimate look at the misogynistic culture and the multitude of dysfunctional relationships it perpetuates.

Caren: I thought this was a very sad story. There were so many things disturbing about it, but at the same time (as is often the case with tragedy) it was hard to pull myself away. Take the footbinding, for example. It was grotesque and horrifying, but I was completely riveted because it was so shocking!

Even more disturbing than that barbarism was the lack of meaningful relationships in these women's lives. All their relationships were abusive to one degree or another. Mothers withholding affection from their daughters. Fathers who threatened and despised them. Husbands who used them like animals. Mothers-in-law who abused them. Sisters and sisters-in-law who competed and conspired against one another. No wonder they all died so young! The most one could hope for was a husband who wouldn't beat her and that she might have enough sons to qualify to be the leader of the house when her mother-in-law died. What a miserable existence!

Jenny: No kidding. I kept thinking that the only thing these women had for their own pleasure and happiness was nu shu, the secret writing. Their children, their friendships, their marriages were all picked based on advancing in position. Securing their futures, but not really having any control over whatever the men in their lives decided for them. It killed me every time women were referred to as worthless branches of the family tree because they are only good for bearing sons. At the same time, when Beautiful Moon dies, you can tell that she meant more to her father than just property to marry off.

This book is really about suffering. Suffering through foot-binding, suffering through abusive families, suffering through marriage and childbirth, and suffering through society's treatment of women. Yet, in spite of all, Lily and Snow Flower loved each other and their friendship was a source of happiness despite all the suffering. The little ray of sunshine amidst all the dreary clouds. That lasts all the way up until they go into the mountains to escape the rebels attacking the countryside. Things unravel from there.

Caren: As I read about Lily and Snow Flower's falling out (and thought of how we sometimes hurt most the ones we love most), I thought about how insecurity and jealousy can ruin even the deepest of friendships. But the more I had some distance from the book, the more I came to the conclusion that the real tragedy was that their friendship wasn't as deep as Lily believed it was. You know the saying, "in love with being in love"? I think they were so desperate to find a meaningful relationship in their lives that their friendship existed more as an idea than a real living thing. Maybe with the restrictions of their culture this was the closest they could ever hope to get to someone. Or maybe it was just Lily's own self-centeredness and ambitions that made her incapable of the empathy necessary to truly bond with another person. In any case, I couldn't help but think that the sworn sisters at the end were better friends to Snow Flower than Lily ever was. They were at least genuine with her, accepting her and comforting her instead of trying to change her into something that fit their prescribed ideal.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Lily well enough. I was sympathetic to her situation and happy for her successes. But it pained me that for all her fancy words about love and friendship, she really didn't experience either one.

Jenny: I think part of the blame could be placed on Snow Flower. She kept holding things back and lying about her situation. Lily thought she knew her friend, but she kept getting the rug yanked out from under her. Neither of these girls understood what a true friendship was because if they had, Snow Flower wouldn't have lied over and over again and Lily would have been more compassionate. They certainly would never have reached the point where they are publicly humiliating each other.

Having said that, could they really have achieved that level of friendship? Every single relationship in their lives is based on advancing their own positions, including their friendship. Having a laotong, or life-time friend, made you more marriageable. Snow Flower had to keep it a secret how bad off they were so she could be entered into a laotong with Lily. When all the truth comes gushing forth later on how bad Snow Flower's situation was with her husband, the only things Lily thought she could say were how she needed to perform her duties. These ladies were doomed from the beginning.

Caren: Yeah, it's true. Definitely add this to my list of "books that make me glad to live when and where I do!" I do have to say, one of the things I loved about the story was the descriptions of the silks and embroidery and textile arts that were so important in their culture. I have a weakness for Chinese art and reading this book made me hungry for a good Zhang Yimou film! In fact, I might just have to go out and rent Raise the Red Lantern to get it out of my system!

Jenny: Wow, I haven't even heard of that movie. You've got me interested now. I think that Asian cultures are so fascinating simply because they are completely different from our Anglo-Saxon based culture. Though the plight of women through history seems to be a universal theme.

So, is it just me or is there not much else to discuss about the book? Lily is a bad friend: check. Women are treated badly: check. Foot-binding makes me feel queasy: check. Let me tell you, my gigantic size 10 feet would have forced me into a serf-like existence back then for sure.

Caren: I think that about sums it up! Interesting read, especially if you are curious about the culture of that time. But I'm not sure I could slog through the misery again! I look forward to March's read being a bit more entertaining. We could stand to read something more light-hearted!


  1. What? This book has a grotesque footbinding scene too? Get OVER it Lisa See! I started to read Peony in Love by the same author and had to stop because 1.) She kept talking about foot binding, like, on every other page for the first 50 pages,and 2.) She wrote about it so convincingly that I was pretty sure I was going to pass out. I had to stop after the first bone cracking and didn't have the stomach to go back. And now I really wish I had some smelling salts on me.

  2. Ho ho, not just a scene! A chapter of toe breaking and hobbling on grotesquely misshapen feet!

  3. Hey, I've read this one!

    I thought the whole foot-binding thing was fascinating (I'm a weirdo). Horrifying, yes, but still fascinating.

    But I couldn't exactly like the book -- it really was depressing! I hate it when the characters don't learn anything, and the falling-out with Snow Flower happened so late in the book I felt like tossing it across the room in disgust that Lily hadn't learned anything about life even after hundreds of pages. I liked what Caren said about Lily's liking the IDEA of the relationship more than she liked Snow Flower herself -- when you put it that way, the whole thing makes so much more sense. (Because, YEAH, I couldn't exactly figure out what was so bad about what Snow Flower had done ... why Lily couldn't at least put their relationship away quietly if nothing else).

    I was really disappointed that the whole time out in the mountains meant nothing in the end. I really expected Lily's eyes to be opened in some way by that experience -- and nothing.

    Anyway, thanks for the review -- they are fun to read. :-)

  4. Footbinding seems the 19th century Chinese equivalent of bulimia. Seriously, who thinks of these things?

    Kudos to the folks who finally woke up enough to say, "Gosh, this foot ruining stuff seems like a bad idea. You guys go ahead and make your heal and big toe touch, I'm off to play some b-ball."