Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

fan with nushu script
Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2005

It's about: "This novel takes place in 19th century China, when girls had their feet bound, then spent the rest of their lives in seclusion with only a single window from which to see. Illiterate and isolated, they were not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions. But in one remote county, women developed their own secret code, nu shu – "women's writing" – the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world. Some girls were paired as "old-sames" in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. An old woman tells of her relationship with her "old-same," their arranged marriages, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood—until a terrible misunderstanding written on their secret fan threatens to tear them apart." (taken from the book website)

I thought: The historical aspects of this novel are fascinating. As a woman with a background in literature and women's studies, I was particularly interested in a woman's role in 19th century Chinese culture and the secret nushu script, which I had never heard of. The scenes describing footbinding were especially interesting/gruesome/shocking. I knew they wanted little feet, but did you know the ideal foot size was 7 centimeters, or the size of a THUMB? So they systematically broke all the bones in their feet. HOLY---.

Aside from the interesting historical elements, I was also captivated by the depiction of an intimate friendship between women and the emotional truth with which See tells it. Any female who has had a female best friend will most likely deeply connect with their story. And it's told in very lyrical prose, which adds another dimension to reading about the friendship.

BUT -- there is a but. I found the ending unsatisfying. By the end of the book, I felt like I had invested so much in Snow Flower and Lily's friendship that they -- and I -- deserved more. After really enjoying the entire book, I finished it feeling very unsatisfied, even cheated.

Verdict: Despite the disappointing ending, I would still stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: I'm not sure that most men would appreciate this story, but as a woman, I really connected with it. I would recommend it to a woman who enjoys novels with historical elements.

Warnings: mild references to "bed business" and one pretty mild scene of physical intimacy (not sex) between two young girls

Favorite excerpts:
"Anyone who says that women do not have influence in men's decisions makes a vast and stupid mistake."

"We [daughters] may be worthless. We may be raised for another family. But often we are loved and cherished, despite our natal families' best efforts not to have feelings for us... Maybe as parents we try not to care. I tried not to care about my daughter, but what could I do? She nursed at my breast like my sons had, she cried her tears in my lap, and she honored me by becoming a good and talented woman in nu shu."

What I'm reading next: Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez