Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a book that is a compelling story, written with historical fact. It is a book of insight, intensity, and one of cultural practices, and what it means to be a woman within societal traditions, influences and demands of the time period.
See has given us much to ponder, within the confines of the two main characters, Lily and Snow Flower. Each has taken out a contract to become “old sames”, partners in every aspect for life…even more intimate than a husband and wife relationship. We see their pains and joys, their lives unfold before our eyes, and we see their relationship grow, year by year, through the women’s secret writing of “nu-shu“, a way of communicating to each other. We see how foot-binding has given them opportunities that those who did not practice it had, and see how their husband’s status is linked to the foot-binding. Foot-binding, although limiting/repressive, is also a way that women were able to gain some power over their husbands and the world around them.
Living in 19th Century China was extremely harsh, and life was difficult on many levels. Husbands ruled over their wives, they could beat and abuse them, without fear of punishment, it was socially acceptable. There was a hiearchy, an order, within each household, that determined the authoritative pecking order. Women who practiced foot-binding were confined in the household, to the “women’s chamber”, where they spent, basically, their entire lives, with other women, each day, performing tasks like sewing their dowry clothes, quilts, linens, etc. They rarely saw sunlight, except through a window.
Lily, the narrator, takes us through the decades of her life, often filled with ignorance, even though she has high social standing in her environment, she is not emotionally intelligent. We see how her views often stick to the traditional mode, rather than the emotional aspect, and in that way she ends up not being the truly loving and empathetic “old same” that Snow Flower was (even though Snow Flower deceived her, on occasion). We see their lives filled with deceit, disloyalty, cruelty, yet, we also see that the Lily has written her story as a form of catharsis and redemption for her errors in understanding the true meaning of love and loyalty, the true meaning of compassion and caring. It is her form of atonement for what she knows she did not do, during the years that passed between her and Snow Flower.
The end brings atonement, redemption and it does bring the two women together, in a way I did not imagine.
It was a heartfelt and dramatic book, one I could not put down until I finished it. The story stayed with me…long after I read the book.
I highly recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. This was my second reading of it, having read it about six years ago.