You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.
Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.
As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.
Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).
Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.
This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.
The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.
Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.