Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher, Year: Random House, 2005
Other Works: Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Challenge: 100 Books, Historical Fiction
Premise: Two girls grow into women and confront the difficulties of life together in nineteenth century China.
I first heard of Lisa See when Shanghai Girls came out. The cover was beautiful, and I'd always planned on reading one of her books at some point but had yet to get around to it. My awesome book club struck again in that one of our members made me finally make good on my intentions with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Lily and Snow Flower were born in the same month, have the same number of siblings, and had their feet bound on the same day. All of their characters match, and so they become laotong, or old sames. Together they learn many things that women need to know: how to sew and cook and clean, how to be a proper wife, and the importance of bearing sons to carry on the next generation. They pass messages back and forth and record important details about their lives on a fan in their secret women's language, nu shu. And eventually, as women, they will support one another through the most difficult of hardships. In other words, they are as close as two people can be. Until one day, a fatal mistake leaves them both heartsick and alone, cut off from each other.
I simply loved this book. I think the success of Lisa See's writing is equal parts history and narrative. That she is an expert researcher cannot be denied. It comes through on every page as the details and hardships of nineteenth century China unfold. She paints a picture in your mind, so vivid I was completely enveloped by it. In the morning, as I ate breakfast, I thought of congee. As I went through my day, I thought of the stifling confines of the women's chamber. When I did my laundry, I thought about making and intricately embroidering an entire wardrobe. And never far from my mind were the many freedoms that were withheld from women of that period.
But beyond that, See created faces to go with those truths--that way of life that so many knew. The foot binding scene was incredibly haunting, almost too horrible to read, not because of the torturous nature of the practice, although that comes through, but because it was happening to Lily--a girl who loved to run and be outside. A little girl, trying to please her mother and accept her future but still a child. When Snow Flower and Lily meet and begin sharing everything with each other, I allowed myself a sigh of relief because now they would each have love in their lives, a way to be lifted. But a terrible foreboding was always present, a black cloud over the small happinesses afforded Lily and Snowflower. For Lily tells us in the opening paragraphs of the novel that she did not value the greatest love in her life, that she pays the consequences of regret in her old age.
Really, I think this story is about the complexity of love. Love can be a great motivator for good, but can also cause the greatest of sorrows. In a culture where relationships were unduly strained, where feelings were suppressed, Snow Flower and Lily found a way to love each other as women, as equals. And yet, as that relationship endured and situations changed, that love was tested and did not always hold true. Jealousy and pride are as ugly as love is beautiful, and when they creep in, they can, in a short time, eat away at a lifetime of trust.
No matter what women of the period were subjected to, foot binding, a low marriage, an abusive husband, etc., it would definitely be a mistake to assume that those things meant that they had no power. Just because their power wasn't explicit doesn't mean it didn't exist. As much as men were considered to be superior, women's influence was felt everywhere, and they found ways to express it--through their secret writings, in the rearing of their children, in their acceptance of their fates.
I finished this book with the feeling of quiet resignation that becomes Lily as an old woman, sitting quietly, waiting to enter the next world. Hers is a life of abundance, yet some missteps haunt her year after year. We all make those mistakes in life, if we are lucky we can correct them. But often, we are unlucky, and instead we cringe and wring our hands at those memories, wishing we could go back for just a moment and act with greater thoughtfulness. In the end, this story sits in my mind like a Chinese proverb, a cautionary tale. A reminder to cherish, to be grateful, to live without regret.