Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an amazing novel. It incorporates a vast amount of history and cultural details about rural China in the early to mid-1800's. But in a stellar example of historical fiction, the author, Lisa See, seamlessly weaves these details throughout the life story of Lily, a farmer's daughter whose perfectly bound feet earn her a passage out of poverty to become the wife of the eldest son of one of most wealthy and influential families in the county. But the rags-to-riches tale is only the backdrop for an even more moving story of the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower, her laotong, or "old same," a girl whose birth date and other characteristics matched so perfectly that they were united in friendship for life. Like other women in ancient China, the girls learn a secret language, nu shu, by which they communicate when they are apart and with which they record the significant events of their lives on a fan that they share between them.

Lily encapsulates the uniqueness of a laotong relationship by reflecting on love and the place of women in Chinese culture: "We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be a part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder about a servant. We are ordered to love and honor our husbands' ancestors, so we perform the proper duties, even if our hearts quietly call out gratitude to our natal ancestors. We love our parents because they take care of us, but we are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We drain the family resources. We are raised by one family for another. As happy as we are in our natal families, we all know that parting is inevitable. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All these types of love come out of duty, respect, and gratitude. Most of them, as the women in my county know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality. But the love between a pair of old sames is something completely different...a laotong relationship is made by choice" (59-60).

Many parts of the novel were brutally honest and painful to read, such as the descriptions of foot binding, the general condition and treatment of women, and the untimely deaths of so many. Conversely, there were points of great beauty and love revealed in family relations and friendships. The author often foreshadows some of the significant crises of the novel, revealing just enough for the reader to take notice, but not enough to fully reveal the plot. For example, early in the novel, we read, "Always Aunt cautioned us to be careful with our words, since by using phonetic characters, as opposed to the pictographic characters of men's writing, our meanings could become lost or confused. 'Every word must be placed in context,' she reminded us each day the end of our lesson. 'Much tragedy could result from a wrong reading'" (69).

Tragedy does indeed come to Lily and Snow Flower through a misreading of nu shu, but for many years they use it to deepen their friendship and survive the challenges of their circumstances. When early in their married lives, Snow Flower breaks with traditional phrases and shares the truth of her situation and feelings, Lily realizes "the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written. The men in our households never expected us to have anything important to say. They never expected us to have emotions or express creative thoughts" (160).

This is a story of self-discovery, of learning one's own strengths and weaknesses through fellowship with another. It is a story of regret that some of those lessons were learned too late or all too imperfectly: "it's hard to be truly generous and behave in a forthright manner when you don't know how" (247). It is a story of expectations and disappointments, a story of love and loyalty mixed with jealousy and bitterness, a story about the importance of words, and it ends with these most humble and powerful words, "Please forgive me" (253). Lisa See has crafted a rare novel, one that not only reveals the history and culture of an ancient people, but also shows the frailties of the human heart in any time and culture.


Krakovianka said...

What a stunning review...I'm definitely going to be looking for this book.

farmlanebooks said...

I love reading about China, so this one appealed to me. Now I've read your review it is going straight onto the wish list - thank you!