April 21, 2011
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
2005 Random House
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan country, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, or “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. They both endure the agony of footbinding and together reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
This is the first time I’ve read a book in three different formats: print, digital and audio. I began with the paperback edition (which I’d had on my shelf for several years), but hit a slump about halfway through. I wanted to finish the book, but couldn’t stay interested. I don’t need a lot of dialogue to maintain interest in a book, but the descriptive nature of this novel made it a slow, plodding experience. However, just as I was ready to call it quits, I wound up manning the Nook desk at work. Between customers, I was able to read a couple more chapters on a Nook and was pulled back into the story. Later that night, having just finished my current audio book, I decided to download the audio version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and wound up listening to a large portion on my Nano. Gotta love technology!
On the tradition of footbinding:
Mama and Aunt resumed their pre-binding activities, making more bandages. They fed us red-bean dumplings, to help soften our bones to the consistency of a dumpling and inspire us to achieve a size for our feet that would be no larger than a dumpling. In the days leading up to our binding, many women in our village came to visit us in the upstairs chamber. Elder Sister’s sworn sisters wished us luck, brought us more sweets, and congratulated us on our official entry into womanhood. Sounds of celebration filled our room. Everyone was happy, singing, laughing, talking. Now I know there were many things no one said. (No one said I could die. It wasn’t until I moved to my husband’s home that my mother-in-law told me that one out of ten girls died from footbinding, not only in our country but across the whole of China.)
All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life—a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet with seven distinct attributes: They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements, length is most important. Seven centimeters—about the length of a thumb—is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. Finally, the cleft formed by the forefoot and heel should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicularly within its folds. If I could attain all that, happiness would be my reward.
On the laotong relationship:
“A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage,” Aunt might say to begin the conversation. She would repeat many of the matchmaker’s arguments, but she always came back to the one element she viewed as most important. “A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose—to have sons.”
I’m glad I stuck with the book, if only to be able to discuss the plot and characters with customers (and to see what all the fuss was with regard to the footbinding), but it failed to live up to the hype I’ve been hearing for the past five years. If I decide to continue with the Peony in Love, I think I’ll listen to the audio version since I find See’s writing a bit long-winded.
I also think this is going to be a rare instance in which the movie is better than the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film this summer! Click here to watch a trailer.
See what one of my favorite bloggers had to say about (over 4 years ago!):
What I enjoyed the most is how the author, Lisa See, delved into relationships. She showed us mother/daughter relationships, husband/wife relationships, friendships, and the clash between the rich and the poor. I also loved reading of China, with its food, silks, and landscape. I highly recommend this book. (Bellezza, of Dolce Bellezza)
Be sure to click on Bellezza's link to read her full review of Lisa See's novel.