Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Monday, June 11, 2012

Title: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Random House, 2006
Source: Borrowed from my mom
Read for: Fun

Lily's family is average, without high prospects or much money. However, Lily's feet are such that they can be bound perfectly, meaning that she will gain higher status than her family has previously been able to attain and that she is destined for a good marriage. Because of this, the matchmaker pairs her with a laotong, or "old-same," a lifelong relationship of friendship and support with a girl whose life and destiny matches with hers. Lily's relationship with her laotong is fulfilling and happy, but as they grow older their lives begin to diverge.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an interesting story, one that does not fit my normal ideas of narrative. The language is slow and formal, and the plot unfolds slowly and delicately. At times this made Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a difficult read for me, but as a whole I enjoyed the story and the unique look at a culture with which I am less familiar.

I experienced similar roadblocks with the other Lisa See novel I've read, Peony in Love. Something about her style doesn't always mesh well with me. While the words are beautiful and descriptive, giving life to vivid images, the tone is more stiff and formal than what I am used to. However, this isn't always negative; the culture is different, so it makes sense that the style, too, is different. While the difference was at times not as comfortable or enjoyable for me, I don't think that it was always a bad thing. One element of the style that I don't think would work for me regardless of the cultural tone, however, was that See tended to "tell" rather than "show." Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is very introspective, and while I enjoyed it, sometimes I wanted less of Lily's inner commentary and more events displaying what was taking place.

The story itself was beautiful, although also completely foreign to me. Some of the core concepts of Lily and Snow Flower's lives, such as the need for daughters' feet to be bound and the way it signifies a mother's love, does not mesh with my Western ideas. The idea too that women must be utterly at the mercy of their husbands' whims (and those of their mother-in-law), and that a woman would submit to brutal beating because it is her place in the household, was hard for me and I'm sure many other readers as well. I also wondered at the tradition of the sworn sisterhoods and laotongs -- it was strange in my mind to have your friends chosen for you, arranged through your supposed destinies and birth dates. However, while dealing with these concepts so foreign to my life, I also found beauty and symmetry in the layers of duty and commitment to family and loved ones. I found fascination and grace in the various festivals and traditions of the characters. And as for the lives of the characters themselves, I found the convolutions and misunderstandings of Snow Flower and Lily's lives to be heartbreaking and the path they take to forgiveness to be beautiful.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a unique book that illustrates a society that differs greatly from the one I live in. For this reason, at times it was hard for me to understand or relate to the book. However, I found the story to be moving and powerful despite the differences.

3.75 stars

Warnings: Talk of "bed business," detailed nudity

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