April 21, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
2005 Random House
Finished 4/11/11
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)

Publisher’s Blurb:

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.


  1. This is my favorite of Lisa's books. I read it while I was recoering from foot surgery, on both my feet if you can believe it, but I was entranced. However, like you, I find her long-winded as well. And, Shanghai Girls was a book I almost loathed. It was so upsetting, there was no redeeming quality in it at all for me.

  2. Anonymous5:54 AM

    I'm sorry you didn't care for this one too much, Les. I read it the summer of 2008. My book group discussed it that summer, but I was not able to make the meeting and so missed talking about it with others. Significantly, when we discussed SHANGHAI GIRLS last year, I had to miss that meeting too. Guess I'm not meant to be there when Lisa See's books are talked about! LOL

    I think the trailer looked lovely and you may be right about the movie. I do remember the language in the book was very spare. I liked it though. :-)

  3. I read this one back when it was released and I felt like I was the only person who didn't love it.

  4. I've been wanting to read See's work for a while and now I'm worried it may be overhyped. I do plan to see the movie, though.

  5. I really enjoyed Snow Flower, but what a horrible, horrible thing to do to people!! Foot binding must have been sheer torture. I think I'll avoid the movie. The book was enough of that story for me.

  6. Bellezza - I remember when you had that awful foot surgery. I'm not sure I could've read this book while recovering from that kind of surgery. Have you read anything by Amy Tan? I prefer her writing over See's.

    Kay - Funny that you missed both meetings! Have you read Peony in Love? I think this will be the one and only book I read by See. She just didn't win me over enough to take the time to try any others. But I will watch the film. More for the friendship than the foot binding scenes, though!

    Sassymonkey - Good to know! I was feeling the same way.

  7. Nancy - It was horrible, wasn't it?! I just looked at the link Bellezza provided in her review and saw how awful those poor girls' feet turned out after all the binding. Awful, awful, awful!!! I hope the movie focuses more on the friendship than the foot binding.

  8. I read this in June, 2006, the month before I started my blog. I rated it a 4/5 and have fond memories of it. I'm sad to see that it didn't go over very well with you. I tried to listen to Peony in Love a couple of months ago and was bored out of my mind. Good luck with that one. :)

  9. Joy - Sometimes I wonder if I'm too harsh in my ratings. It was definitely good enough to keep me reading, but just not the great book I was expecting.

    Hmmm, if you were bored out of your mind with Peony in Love and Bellezza almost loathed Shanghai Girls, perhaps this isn't an author I want to continue reading. I wonder what her mysteries are like.

  10. You made me go look up my notes about this book. It's been a while since I read it but I remembered not loving it as much as many of my friends did. I ended up saying that "I think the background of the cultural and societal stuff was actually more interesting to me than the actual relationship and story of Lily and Snow Flower."

  11. SuziQ - I agree. The background of the cultural and societal stuff is what kept me reading. Same thing happened when I read Memoirs of a Geisha.

  12. There were parts of this book I really liked, mainly the descriptions of such a different time and place, but I didn't love it as much as I expected to. I didn't realize a movie was coming out - cool. I'll probably be lining up to see that one!

  13. Iliana - Sounds like we had a similar experience with this book. I doubt I'll be lining up to see the movie, but I will add it to my Netflix queue as soon as it's released. I don't care to go to the movies anymore. Prefer to stretch out on my sofa and watch where it's comfortable and quiet. :)

  14. Oh, perfect...I see the word verification below is "grack" which is exactly what my memory of those foot-binding passages brings to mind.

    This is one that our book club read a couple of years ago. At our discussion, we were privileged to have someone from the TCU women's studies department who happened to be of Chinese descent and had visited China and researched foot-binding, so we not only saw pictures but had a pair of the impossibly tiny shoes to hold and cringe over.

  15. Janet - It sounds like your book club discussion made this book well worth reading. I still cringe when I think of the foot-binding process. Ugh.


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