Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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Jun 24, 08

bookshelves: novels, book-club-picks
Recommended for: women more than men; fans of history more than fans of plot
Read in June, 2008

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of two girls—Lily and Snow Flower—paired together as laotong, meaning “old same,” in 19th century China. This special lifelong relationship is supposed to have an intimate depth that conquers all the changes and adversity a relationship can go through, but as the reader learns in the initial chapter, something has torn this friendship apart.

The novel is narrated by Lily, now an 80-year old widow reflecting back on her life. She tells of being paired as laotong with Snow Flower at seven, how they learned the secret female language nu shu so that they could communicate back and forth on a fan, and the harsh conditions women have to endure. This includes foot binding (which are some of the strongest and most disturbing descriptions in the book) as well as mistreatment from husbands and other family members.

Stylistically, See’s novel is based more on history and culture than character and plot. Unfortunately, this leads to parts being thrown in to give the reader details about the way of life rather than adding anything to the plot, making the story slow to get going. It isn’t until the last third of the book, when the Taiping Rebellion hits, that the characters start to break out of the cultural mold. To See’s credit, she does give many of the characters one driving force—for Lily: the desire to be loved, for Snow Flower: the desire to run free—that evolves as both a strength and a weakness. Even the antagonists are given a fair level of depth.

However, See’s writing is so blasé that what little plot there is ends up faltering by the end. Throughout the novel, the reader is waiting for the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower to break, but when it does, the scene is a letdown and the impact is not felt with standard phrases about crying eyes and quivering lips. Knowing the end at the start neutralizes a lot of the suspense. Any subtle nuances about who Lily and Snow Flower are—even the odd, well-written aspect of how Lily loves in a very male way (trying to always fix things, obeying by the male rules)—are smashed by the hammer over the head introspection at the end of the novel. A third-person structure would have left room for the cultural and character observations that end up feeling forced. Two stars.

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Colin McKay Miller Pure side note: Did anyone see that Seinfeld episode where Jerry is speaking to a woman named Donna Chang on the phone? Soon his family gets involved and they’re all enjoying her until one day they meet in person and Jerry immediately finds out that she’s not Asian. He feels like it’s false advertising. I’m not saying that’s what is happening here with Lisa See—since she is part Chinese, spent extensive time in China and with family, etc., and simply doesn’t quite look the part—but I find it interesting that the publishers didn’t put her picture on the back of the book (her picture is towards the back of the paperback edition I have). Does anyone else think the publishers did that for the same I reason I do? It’s the Jerry Seinfeld problem—stupid as it is—she’s got to look the part to sell the credibility.


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