Thursday, March 18, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I hate book reviews that start with something like, "I found this such an interesting book. It taught me so much about…." But that is the way I feel about this book. Anyway, just what was I supposed to have known about Chinese foot binding, marriage practices, and filial relations in the period from 1823 to the start of the 1900s?

The book is narrated from the point of view of Lily, the "worthless daughter" of a rural Chinese family, who has her feet bound to improve her marriage prospects. Her prospects do improve, mainly because a wily matchmaker has been looking to link the fate of Snowflower, the daughter of a once noble family that has fallen on hard times, to that of a likely rising prospect. Lily fits the bill. Marriage intrigues and matchmakers aside, this is a book about a deep friendship between two women, the conflicting needs of personal honesty and social expectations, and the process of social acculturation.

The reader is taken on a journey into an exotic world that explores the role and worth of women in Chinese society, foot binding, laotong friendship, sworn sisterhoods, personal ambition, sincere affection, betrayal, and atonement.

The themes remain contemporary and universal. The delight of the writing is the focus on the details of everyday life. See leads us on a journey in which we observe, smell, feel, and empathize along with the heroines. She truly leads us to See with new eyes.

I could have done without some of the melodrama: Spring Moon throwing herself down the well was a bit much. But then it is part of a different cultural logic. It is like Chinese opera. I can't say that I have a taste for that kind of stylized performance and screechy atonal music.

On a more familiar note, having recently read Anne of Green Gables again, it is impossible not to note the similarity in the concept of intense and unbending female friendship. Lily and Snowflower are bosom buddies and this friendship sustains each of them, for different reasons through most of their lives. Anne would have been a stubborn Horse too. The book is both foreign and familiar.

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