Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2005 (read May 2021)
I didn’t do much reading through summer of 2021 and there are a handful of books that I didn’t review, but I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of them until recently. I swear I can remember writing a review for this one, but I can’t find it anywhere and I’m really disappointed now that I don’t have one. I’m a huge fan of Lisa See and have written lengthy reviews on both The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and The Island of Sea Women, so I will do my best to review this one as well, keeping in mind it’s been the better part of 6 months since I read it.
Like most of Lisa See’s books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction set in China. See excels at writing about specific parts of women’s culture (tea cakes in The Tea Girl and the Haenyeo in Sea Women), Snow Flower is no exception and focuses on the practice of foot binding and the relationship between two Laotong. I believe Snow Flower was See’s first book that became really popular, so I’ve been itching to go back and read it for a while now. For some reason I always find Lisa See’s books really intimidating to pick up, but they’re always a joy to read!
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan covers a lot of history, primarily focusing on Lily and her Laotong, Snow Flower. A Laotong is basically a lifelong sistership between two girls that are considered to be “old sames”. Most girls will have sisterhood circles with other girls in their village, but few are selected for Laotong matches, so it’s a particularly auspicious pairing that is arranged by a matchmaker. In this case, Lily is a poor girl, but because her foot binding goes so well, she is matched with Snow Flower, who comes from a much wealthier family. This foreshadows a good future for Lily and will allow her to marry up.
The book starts off as a story about foot binding and evolves into a novel about so much more. But first let’s spend a bit of time talking about foot binding. This is an old Chinese tradition where young girls’ feet are literally broken and reshaped as a symbol of status. The smaller the end result (as was the case with Lily), the higher the status. In this day and age it seems like a barbaric practice that resulted in the deaths of girls who succumbed to infections in the process of binding and left all women with limited mobility later in life. I don’t like to pass judgement on other cultures, but where it becomes frustrating is that women are still meant to perform the majority of household chores while moving around on tiny feet.
However in Lily’s case, her successful foot binding allowed for her to move up in society. Having a Laotong is another status symbol and because Snow Flower came from a higher class than her, it further elevated her family and she eventually marries well. But like all of Lisa See’s books, the foot binding is really only a backdrop in which to set her characters and this book is primarily about sisterhood. It’s why I keep returning to her books over and over again because she invests so much time in developing the relationships between women and exploring unique aspects of female culture. These girls live in a remote Hunan country and are taught the secret women’s language of Nu Shu, which was a language created by women, for women. The girls learn it from their mothers and write back and forth to one another on their secret fan when they are unable to be together in person.
This is a hard review to write because of the magnitude of history that See covers in just a short 280 page book. Class relationships are a major theme of the book and I love how he explored compassion through Lily and Snow Flower’s social standings. At the start of the book Lily questions much about Snow Flower because she comes from more money than her, but doesn’t understand that Snow Flower’s family is also falling apart and that because of her father’s addiction to opium, they have basically lost everything. Her family clings to the Laotong relationship as a way to maintain their status, while Lily’s family clings to it as a way to elevate their status. While Lily marries up, Snow Flower is forced into the lowest of matches with that of a pig farmer. I loved the exploration of how this influences the relationship between the two women over time and how all consuming and blinding status can be, eventually driving a wedge between the two women later in life.
At the same time, See covers what I believe is the Taiping Rebellion (it’s hard for me to remember now that it was so long ago). The conflict sees the women thrown from their homes and forced to hide in the mountains while millions are murdered in the villages. I wish I could elaborate more on this conflict, but the details are so foggy in my mind – I just bring it up to highlight the scope that See is able to cover in such a short book without the plot ever feeling rushed. It’s what makes her such an accomplished writer. Though she is ambitious, she always keeps her relationships at the center of her writing and I think this is what ties her novels together without making them seem overwhelming. Though she covers a lot, she sticks to her theme of sisterhood.
Overall it’s a heartbreaking novel that covers the entirety of Lily and Snow Flower’s lives. While a hard read at times, it’s an eye-opening and meaningful one and I definitely recommend! Even after many months, I still had so much to say about this one and her stories always stay with me for years to come afterwards.