Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I was impressed with Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a coming-of-age novel about two girls in 19th century China. The novel revealed a lot about Chinese culture and history, as well as the rigidity of Chinese society, including the roles of both women and men and their relationships with parents, older siblings, younger siblings, spouses and in-laws. Lily, the book’s narrator, was born into a working class farming family, while Snow Flower came from a richer family. Still they became laotong, special friends for life, a very formal relationship which is actually much closer than even husband-and-wife. Their lives are intertwined from then on. They undergo footbinding together (which is particularly gruesome in its details), engagement, and marriage, the latter which changes both their lives and their relationship. Lily, partly because of her perfect feet, marries into a rich and powerful family where she eventually becomes Lady Lu, the most important woman in an entire village. Snow Flower, however, is forced to marry a butcher, a particularly lowly profession which is considerably below Lily’s new status.

The novel follows their pregnancies and births–of boys, if possible, since they are precious while girls are useless and good only for marrying out. As is typical of historical Chinese novels, the happiness is intertwined with tribulations such as a county-wide typhoid plague which kills many people, including Lily’s and Snow Flower’s own family members, and also the evacuation of entire villages into the mountains during the Taiping Rebellion, where the villagers huddle in the snow and cold with little food for three months, many people dying during this ordeal.

While the novel’s focus is on the entire Chinese society in the 19th century from the point of view of its women, much of it is narrowed upon the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower, who struggle to maintain their special relationship their entire lives in spite of the forces pulling them apart. Snow Flower is a moving novel which I recommend highly.


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