Lisa Vegan's Reviews > Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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's review
Jul 03, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, bookclub, reviewed, gr-a, novel, historical-fiction, 1-also-at-lt
Recommended for: those interested in women in 19th century rural China or who enjoy learning about other cultures
Read in July, 2008

I ended up enjoying this book because it was so beautifully written and it took me deep into a world so unlike my own; thank goodness for that! This story takes place in China’s Hunan Province in the 1800s and is more about the inner lives of the women than the men.

I had a complete misconception of what foot binding entailed. It’s completely different, and so much more brutal a practice than I ever could have imagined. There were also many examples given of what I consider other horrendous customs and beliefs. I’ve always believed that tradition and culture that harms is not worth preserving and reading about these people’s lives was a painful experience. The story is fiction but well researched so I’m assuming there was much truth about how women led their lives in that time and place.

I was able to feel some empathy for the storywriter, because I could understand her longing to be loved and the difficulties she had in her upbringing that formed her personality, even though I sometimes had a hard time liking her and many of the characters. I was also irritated by so much of the book. I loathe stories where there’s a horrible miscommunication or misunderstanding that seems so unnecessary, and there’s an example of that here. Also, throughout the book, the narrator is writing the story of her life for another/others in her culture to read, yet the whole time I felt she was educating us in our time & places. So frequently the line “as you know” or “as everyone knows” is used to start a sentence, and I just kept thinking that if everyone knows it the narrator wouldn’t need to say it in that way. The narrator also most of the way through the book alludes to something she’s going to tell the reader and it got to the point where, instead of following along with the story, I just wanted to see what she was going to reveal.

I think that it’s worth it to read the paperback copy because of Lisa See’s notes at the end about the writing of this book,. Perhaps they were there in the hardcover version as well, but often additions such as this aren’t there at publication of the hardcover edition. Also, the paperback has some discussion questions at the end which might come in handy as I read this book for my book club.

The plot & characters did make me think about however women are regarded and what is considered beautiful in various cultures, including our own, can powerfully influence women’s lives. And they also highlight how our various expectations of ourselves and others imposed by our societies can influence human beings. It also made me think a lot about the corrosive power of unresolved anger and trauma.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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rivka I read about foot binding in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth and was similarly horrified. Even though I had been aware that the process sometimes broke bones (my mom used to tell me about it when I shrieked when she brushed my hair (very thick and curly) -- beauty is painful, and it could be worse! ;) ), actually reading about it in detail is stomach-churning.

Lisa Vegan Reading the details about foot binding (of little girls!!!) was horrific. For some naive reason I thought they just wrapped the feet. How wrong I was. 3 inches long were what they ended up for this girl whose feet were bound (a year late) at age 7. 1 our of 10 girls died from the procedure. But it wasn't just that: It was the disrespect showed for girls and women. Females (in this story) their whole lives are told that "girls are worthless" and there was just so much more. But it's a beautifully written story and I was riveted; it was a fast read.

I have very thick and curly hair as well and I'm very grateful I found conditioner as I got older. ;-)

message 3: by Lisa (last edited Jul 04, 2008 01:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan P.S. I think I'll skip The Good Earth. But, was it a good book?

Hmm. Maybe not. I just followed your link and see that you gave it only 2 stars.

message 4: by rivka (last edited Jul 04, 2008 01:32PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

rivka Conditioner is a marvelous invention. :D

It's not a great book; it is a good book. I certainly understood the traditional Chinese social structure and attitude toward owning land much better after reading it. It's worth a read, but don't bump it to the top of your list or anything. ;)

Rachel I know what you mean about how vexing it is to read about horrible misunderstandings or miscommunications with tragic consequences ... the most famous example being: Romeo and Juliet! It's so frustrating! It may seem so unnecessary, but to the credit of writers who use such plotlines .. these misunderstandings do happen in real life and do divide people, causing all kinds of hurt feelings and worse.

So ... while those missed-communcation plot-lines make my skin crawl, I'm ok with it ... I don't mind the skin-crawling feeling as long as it's part of a plausible story about how real people would behave.

Lisa Vegan Rachel, That's so funny because in my first draft of this review, I mentioned Romeo and Juliet (at least I don't think it's there anymore.) Yes, every time, I'm going No! No! She's not dead!!! Or some such exhortation. But you're right about these things happening and in this society and especially with this particular woman, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I was extremely irritated anyway. I think there could have been a more skilled way to tell a story about problems between the two characters.

message 7: by Rachel (last edited Jul 12, 2008 06:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rachel I finished the book. The funny thing is, I don't feel there was really that big of a misunderstanding in the first place. So I actually didn't get that awful OH NO! Romeo and Juliet feeling, especially at the end when I found out the truth. It was a small misunderstanding that Lily turned into a HUGE ONE by flipping out about it to the extent that she did and taking it so terribly personally. Poor Lily. I wish she had not been bound so much by convention all those years when she was with Snow Flower. And I wish she hadn't been so stubborn. It seemed that anger and stubbornness were what propelled her to do the things she regretted most when she was young and kept her from feeling the love she desired so deeply. Alas, I am guilty of mistakes born out of anger and stubbornness, too. So I really identified with Lily.

The ending of the book didn't make my skin crawl at all. Instead I felt tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat in hearing the story of a woman I could identify so closely with ... which is amazing, given that I'm in a totally different culture, 150 years later ....

message 8: by Lisa (last edited Jul 12, 2008 08:06PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Rachel, I saw exactly what you did except that I felt the author was trying to create a plot that had a falling out and then a reconciliation, but I think she could have found a more believable reason for this. Yes, such things happen in real life, but when they occur in fiction, and I have to read page after page of them, I do become irritated. I felt very sorry for Lily and for Snow Flower. I was so horrified by the foot binding and lives these women led, that it was literally painful for me; I was in a depressed mood when I finished reading this. I probably shouldn't have written the review immediately upon finishing the book, although I did revise it shortly after I wrote it. I can understand your identification; I did not at all lack empathy.

message 9: by Trice (new) - added it

Trice I would definitely recommend Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth - it gives a very genuine sense of Chinese culture of the past and hints at its present.

Just a quick comment on part of your review. I would guess that the repeated "As we know" and "As everyone knows" could be seen as a reflection of Chinese culture - I teach English writing and speaking to Chinese college students and I have a terrible time first getting them to the "I think" stage and then beyond that to just stating their opinion without preface. Chinese culture seems formed around the idea that old truths - shared truths - are the best and most true; so when stating how things are, to strengthen what they're saying, they must often point out that this is an old and shared truth, before they can be thought to have a strong argument.

I am still very much a beginning student of Chinese culture, but this is part of what I'm seeing so far. Consider it a reflection, also, on Western culture, where in many ways the individual, including the unknown indvidual, is considered to have as much authority as anyone. In Chinese culture the individual who tries to speak as an authority would be considered arrogant and foolish, and thus, not to be listened to/to be disregarded.

message 10: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Trice,

(I had to go back and read my review.) Oh, that is so interesting, and that makes perfect sense. Thank you for that perspective. It does help me understand the "As we know" and "As everyone knows" phrases. I know someone who teaches ESL to students from Korea and it's interesting to hear about those cultural differences too.

I'll put The Good Earth on my to-read list, if it's not already there; my list is so long I often forget what's on it.

Petra Eggs A Visit from the Footbinder is an interesting collection of stories.

message 12: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Petra X wrote: "A Visit from the Footbinder is an interesting collection of stories."

Thanks, Petra. It looks as though I can get it from my public library's LINK+ (sister libraries) system. I'll definitely add it but I can't find out that much about it. I don't have time to read it in the next month or two but maybe I'll have time to read it in 2011. Thanks for the recommendation!

message 13: by Eileen (new)

Eileen "The plot & characters did make me think about however women are regarded and what is considered beautiful in various cultures, including our own, can powerfully influence women’s lives."

Great comment, Lisa.

The one thing my book group and I found missing in this book was "comic relief." The women suffer terribly and don't seem to have any outlet. Even their friendships were tainted by cultural expectations and strict "rules."

message 14: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Eileen, Yes, it would have probably been a better book, and more tolerable, if there had been more humor in it.

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