Lily is haunted by memories-of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.
In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu ("women's writing"). Some girls were paired with laotongs, "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 isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become "old sames" at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful.
With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.
I really enjoyed this read. Set in a remote corner of China in the 1800s, we are given a glimpse into the lives of several different stratas of society - the humble farmer, a comfortably well off family that rents out the fields to the farmers around him, the socially unacceptable life of a butcher and the fading and disgraced aristocrats.
At the age of 7 Lily and Snow Flower were deemed to be "old sames' - signing a contract that says that they will be the closest of friends for all their lives. For Lily, Snow Flower is an exotic young girl, coming from a wealthy family and always wearing beautiful clothes, and yet, when the customary times for visiting each other, Snow Flower always visits Lily's family, never the other way around. For Snow Flower, her time at Lily's house is a chance for her to learn some of the basics of running a home, in anticipation of her marriage.
Going into the details of the rituals relating to foot binding, to the friendship ceremonies, to the marriage ceremonies and the traditions surrounding the changes in a woman's life after she is married, there was plenty of scope for infodump in this book, and yet, the author manages to convey details regarding these events in such a way as to provide the information, but within the structure of the story.
Most of all, this book is a look at the changing nature of a friendship between two women, particularly during the later days of their lives as one of the women grows into a role of leadership in her family and the other gets closer and closer to the edges of society. There were many moving moments, particularly as one of the characters realises that she was the one with the issues, and not the other way around!
A moving and entertaining read, featuring a time and place that I know very little about.
I have been trying lately to read more books set in areas outside my normal area. While I like historical fiction about China and Japan, there is not enough time to read everything that I want to read. This room was really good for a move into Chinese historical fiction. Lily is the narrator, and in these pages she recaps her life and her friendship with Snow Flower. Joined together in childhood, they were to be close friends for life. Lily came from a lower social class than Snow Flower, but through this friendship great things happen for her. Snow Flower is not all she seems, but they are friends for over 27 years.
Lily was an interesting narrator. She speaks of her life growing up in her mother and fathers' home. We get to experience the foot-binding process which was horrifying to read about. I could not imagine going through that and having the use of my feet limited for the rest of my life. Men's affections do not mean more to me than being able to walk correctly. Lily's younger sister actually dies from the process, as the book says 1 in 10 women do. It made me think of school, I remember learning about a Native group that it was not their feet that they bound but their heads, and then there are the cultures that try and make their necks longer. People in so many cultures are not satisfied with the bodies they are born with, they always have to do something to alter it.
Lily goes through a lot in her life, she lives to be 80. We share her friendship with Snow Flower, her feelings of abandonment in her own home, her perfect feet that helped her have a better life, war, marriage, babies, and old age. In such few pages a lot happens to a very interesting woman. All in all, this was a very interesting read. Lisa See has another book out now that takes place in 17th-century China. I look forward to reading that soon.
A very recommended read!