Hannah's Reviews > Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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Feb 25, 10

Read from February 21 to 25, 2010

I have to say that this book was lovely. For it, I allowed myself an indulgence which I don't think I've ever permitted before, except when I'm sick: I stayed in bed all day to read. I still feel a little "shook up," I guess I would say, from its beauty and from what it meant to me.

Although the title sounds more befitting of an installment in the Nancy Drew series (that's my one crack at it), the book itself has much more depth than its name would suggest, and made me think a lot about friendship/the relationship between women and sympathy. I know very little of China, life there, and its history, but regardless of whether this was historically accurate or not (and I think it's a temptation to judge historical fiction on its research rather than its integrity as a work), I really liked the way that Lisa See approached it, truly creating the book as its own world, and not letting our modern opinions about foot-binding and the treatment of women seep in, but having the characters react to them (and sometimes against them) and speak about them in ways that seem very real for their time period. I thought the different elements that she incorporated into the story - judging someone based on their calendar sign; the idea of girls growing up with sworn sisters who are their friends and companions until they are all married, or with laotongs, a matching of two girls in a relationship of friendship that endures for life; and the women's "secret language" of nu shu (amazing that it wasn't "discovered" until the 1960s!) - made the story particularly fascinating even just from the viewpoint of 'experiencing' a different culture. The traditional stories that were woven throughout also were thought-provoking in themselves, and in the way that they reinforced many of the story and culture's lessons. It also, for me, broke down the stereotypical image that I have of pre-modern Chinese life as always strict but harmonious, without any sort of violence or upheaval interfering with that (unrealistic, I know, but it was a preconception I hadn't realized I had until reading this - maybe it's my/the overall stereotype of Asian cultures being more serene). That hardships touched even the upper classes in the book added to its sense of 'reality.'

I think in this way, See succeeds where Alice Walker's The Color Purple fails (or at least falters): both have their novels primarily revolve around women and their relationships to one another in contexts where their lives are primarily dictated by the culture and by dominant males, and yet in the narrative, men are secondary characters that are somewhat removed from the action and from our understanding. However, whereas The Color Purple tries to deal with women's relationships, suffering, and oppression in a way that ends up creating an ending that seems completely utopian and outside possibility, See's bonds between her characters persist through tragedy and still remain beautiful and admirable for what they are, and seem something to aspire to. I was very moved by the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower as laotongs ('sames'), and also by how, again, real the book seemed in the idea that we misunderstand one another so easily, and take in and nurse bitterness because we feel hurt but don't want to acknowledge that to others. In this sense, I felt that See's book was valuable to me personally in that, while transporting me so far away, it also turned a mirror towards me, making me see myself and some of my past actions in a new way.
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