Cassy's Reviews > Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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Jul 21, 14

bookshelves: physical-own, 2011, fiction-historical, region-asia, event-met-author
Read from June 16 to 19, 2011

My grandmother used to say that my big feet meant I had a “good foundation.” I’d stare longingly at her size-six feet when she said this and curse my genetic inheritance from elsewhere in the family tree. Then I had an ex-boyfriend make the infuriating statement that rich women have small feet. I pointed out that his celebrity crush, Paris Hilton (yeah, another reason I dumped him) has huge size-eleven feet.

My teenage-self took a lot of comfort in the fact that foot size is pre-ordained and unchangeable. Clown-sized feet can strike the smart, the rich, the beautiful. And there isn’t a damned thing they or I could do about it.

Then I read this book and learn it is possible to change your foot size. It’s called foot binding.

And you know what? I’ll pass. I enjoy being able to wiggle my toes and jump around. So, thank you, Lisa See! For once in my life, I am content with my big feet. And I owe it all to your graphic descriptions of this ancient Chinese method. Blood, putrefaction, pain, breaking bones, risk of death! I cannot believe those women were subjected to such brutal mutilation for the sake of beauty. Then they were still expected to clean the house perched on those tiny, unstable feet.

The foot binding portion of the book was the highlight for me. The inspiration for the book was nu shu, a written language developed by Chinese women and kept secret from men for hundreds of years. Yawn. I didn’t find that part of the story very compelling or even believable. Didn’t men wonder why the ladies kept ink and brushes in their room?

Beyond the foot biding event and nu shu device, this was really a story about a female friendship that was deep and even erotic at times. Putting aside any problems with the plot, their emotions toward each other were complex and meaningful. There was hope and joy, but mostly there was pain.

During an event with Lisa last night, she spoke of how depressing writing can be. She doesn’t always wake up raring to write. Instead she may dread knowing she has to go to a dark, internal place to write about a character’s death or betrayal. Even worse, she may have to stay in that mindset for days or weeks until that section is completely written. I spend so much time glamorizing a writer’s lifestyle that I had not fully considered how emotionally draining it could be. I suspected the career engenders self-doubt. “Will people like what I’ve written?” Yet, I had never thought about the struggle Lisa described to create and inhabit the internal emotional environment necessary to produce the actual words.

I commend Lisa for giving us a realistic look at the treatment of and expectations for women in that day and age. Women were isolated and undervalued. Their worth was determined solely by whether they could produce sons. But honestly, my main complaint about the book is how depressing it was. I kept waiting for some great act of heroism. Yet the women stuck to their traditional roles. The main character not only repeated the indoctrination, she believed it! “My role in life is to obey, obey, obey.” Sure, they rebelled in small ways, but always within the confines of their societal roles. I kept routing for one character to leave an abusive husband or, at very least, stand up to her oppressive mother-in-law.

Normally I criticize authors for deviating from historical facts in order to cater to a modern readership. This time, I think Lisa stayed so true to the setting that she turned me off. (And her heavy-handed foreshadowing didn’t help.) Life was hard for women back then. I get it. But does that make for an enjoyable read? Not really. And I think that was my problem.

I had the wrong expectations as I entered this book. It wasn't a sprawling historical epic, filled with exciting action, heart-fluttering romance, and distant voyages like Shogun (one of the few other historical fictions I have read that are set in Asia). It was a largely quiet book about quiet life.

Lisa herself admitted she writes sad books. And when she started this book, no one thought it would be successful. China? Women? Gloom? No one will read that! Well, she proved them wrong. Lots of people read it. Heck, I read it. Even more people will probably see the movie.

And it’s worth reading. It made me appreciate the freedom women enjoy today, as well as the potential depth of female friendship. Not to mention, I’m looking down at my feet right now and thinking, “hell yeah, that’s one beautiful, ergonomic piece of evolution – and just the right size."
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Reading Progress

06/17/2011 page 10
4.0% "Please let this be a fast read." 2 comments
06/18/2011 page 176
65.0% "It's grating on me a little."

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Flannery Every time I read a review of a book I never properly did a review for, I think other readers are spot-on and I wonder why I rated it the way I did. Didn't I see that? Anyway, I have that feeling here.

That's cool that you went to an event of hers! I guess I never really thought about how hard it would be to write those gut-wrenching scenes.


Cassy Aww, thank you, Flannery! And I get that feeling ALL the time.

Yeah, it was neat to meet her. The room was packed! I kind of feel like I misrepresented the event here. It wasn't so serious! She shared some really funny stories about dealing with her son.


message 3: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Foot binding! I was quite fascinated by this topic a few years ago. I didn't really understand what it was until I saw the pictures. Ew! And men were very much into it, smelling these rotting feet and doing other stuff to them. Gross!


Cassy Lisa spent time describing how the process worked and the results they wanted. Yet it didn't click with me either until I saw pictures online. I agree, it is gross!

Did you read books about foot binding? Surely there aren't very many?!


message 5: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Yeah, it was a non-fiction book I got from my school library. They actually had a few. I was led to this topic after reading Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. Don't know which subject is more repulsive.


message 6: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Oh, I remembered one of the foot binding books:

Splendid Slippers  A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition by Beverly Jackson


Cassy Wow! Who would have thought there are books dedicated entirely to foot binding? That one almost seems to glorify it - but I guess I'd have to read to see.

I was actually thinking of genital mutilation when I wrote my review. I’d be interested to read about it. Both practices frustrate me – I feel like our bodies evolved this way to operate efficiently. Why mess with nature?!? I guess it’s all about subjugating women. Ruin their feet and they can’t go far from home. Ruin their private parts and they can’t enjoy sex with someone else. I really need to look into this.

You mentioned you found one book at your school library. Was this part of your major?


message 8: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Thinking of genital mutilation makes me shudder. I mean, if you see some pictures - OMG, they stitch it all up and cut out slabs of skin! All of it is horrendous, but an important part of culture too.

Oh no, I am an accountant:) I used to read much more non-fiction before, on different gruesome subjects.


Catie Interesting topics over here! It always makes me shudder because both of those processes were done to little girls, and still are. Can you imagine?

Cassy, I thought this book did a good job of showing the mother's viewpoint of needing to do this to her daughter to ensure the daughter's future in society. Isn't it sad that women are also sometimes the ones to carry on these traditions? But, looking in from the outside of another culture is quite a different thing than living within it.


message 10: by Cassy (last edited Jun 22, 2011 03:39PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cassy You're right, Catie. It's easy to judge.

The mothers really were forced to carry on the tradition. And maybe they found bound feet as attractive as the men? I do wish Lisa had the mothers express more regret as they bound their daughters' feet. I guess she showed that in little ways - the pressure to do it properly so their daughters won't need a cane.

I hated watching Lily's mother do it though! She approached it from such a place of ambition. Ekk, and telling her daughter that the pain should teach her to suffer in silence throughout her life? Just hard to read.

I am glad Lisa had Lily realize it's okay to express love to her own daughter. These were the small successes that I probably overlooked in the overall scheme of the book.

And that's interesting to hear what you do, Tatiana! I won't have guessed!


Sherry H Great review, Cassy.


Cassy Thank you, Sherry!


Petra X I enjoyed the comments as much as the review.

What no one writes (but you got very close to) is what bound feet were actually used for. They weren't just bound to keep the women as beautiful, dependent possessions and to show off a man's wealth. The feet were used sexually on the men. The tinier it was the easier it went in, to put it bluntly. I wonder if the same culture go in for strap-ons now?


Catie Wow, I honestly never knew that Petra! It seems like it would be a lot less hassle and anguish to just use some sort of "implement" haha. I'm sure they had them.


Cassy Holy moly! I have never heard of that either! I am pretty sure the Japanese had "implements" at that time. Huh, I am going to have to think about this new revelation. Thanks for the comment, Petra!


message 16: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Petra X wrote: "I enjoyed the comments as much as the review.

What no one writes (but you got very close to) is what bound feet were actually used for. They weren't just bound to keep the women as beautiful, d..."


Ok, I am not trying to be dense here, but what exactly do you mean by "went in"? Went in where? This is a very serious question.


Catie There are only so many holes in the human male body...you've got a 50/50 chance! ;)


message 18: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana LOL. I thought I knew enough about foot binding, but clearly I don't. Let me just say, stuffing rotting, disfigured feet in there is beyond me. What's next?


Catie Haha, that's a very vivid way of putting it! I never knew about that either.


message 20: by Leonardo (new)

Leonardo Duenas-Osorio What a nice review! And, Cassy, glad your feet are not small.


Cassy I guess a "thank you" is in order?


Julianna Actually I looked into it and nu shu did exist. It was used for hundreds of years until the China modernized. The Japanese destroyed a lot of it as did the cultural revolution, but today there is a movement to revitalize it as part of Chinese culture.


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