Saturday, January 31, 2009

OUCH! Book review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Status: Wobbly. 9 mile run this morning.
What I'm listening to: "Gotta Get Thru This" by Daniel Bedingfield

I actually read another book written for people over 18! *Gasp* I know, shocking. So I thought I'd review it. Plus, it made a real impression on me (and you'll see why).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, is the life story of two girls in 19th century China.

From the jacket:

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.

The story begins with Lily as an old woman, who has lived far longer than she ever thought she would, and has watched most of her loved ones pass on without her. Although she may regret many things, she regrets the most how the relationship with her "old same," Snow Flower, went bad. The writing was good and the character development was well done. It's not a fast paced book at all, and while there's some excitement when rebels roam the countryside, the book mostly flows along at the same pace. The vivid culture description is what makes this book really worthwhile. And before I go on, yes, I would recommend the book.

You can find out more about Lisa See on her website.

Although Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is mostly about relationships--which is what many reviews lauded--what impacted me the most was look into 19th century Chinese culture. I've heard of Chinese foot binding, but I guess what I had in mind was that they just bound their feet so they could fit them in smaller shoes. I didn't realize they actually broke the bones of the feet! They bind the foot and then make the girls walk back and forth until the bones break. In one passage I had to put the book down because I was literally sick to my stomach.

And I found some incredible pictures that I just have to share. These were on an amazing website, and the next paragraph and following pictures are from that site.

"Zhou Guizhen who is 86 years old, shows one of her bound feet where the bones in the four small toes were broken and forced underneath the foot over a period of time, at her home in Liuyi village in China’s southern Yunnan Province, 23 February 2007. According to popular Chinese legend the custom was at first adopted among courtesans after a Tang Dynasty emperor about 1000 years ago fell in love with a concubine who wrapped her tiny feet in silk when she danced and the practice soon entrenched itself in the lower classes. It became the ultimate measure of a woman’s beauty and also a condition of marriage and part of bedside repertoire. To mold the so-called “lotus foot” girls’ feet were wrapped at about six years of age, an agonisingly painful process that would break the bones. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images"

What we will do in the name of beauty!!


Wendy said...

"What we will do in the name of beauty!!"

Our culture teaches our children to starve themselves and to over-exercise all in the the name of being model-skinny. Like trying to create small feet in China, this objective is similarly unattainable by all but a very few naturally. So society sets up expectations for us to break our bodies regardless of pain (sound familiar?) in order to have the most "beautiful" body.

Think I'm passionate about this? You have no idea. Sorry to hack this thread, but I had to say it.

Wendy said...

By the way, I'm not talking about a good desire to take care of our bodies -- I'm talking about extremes.

Jaime Theler said...


I completely agree. All the magazines, movies, etc. has been airbrushed and photoshopped so it isn't even real, anyway.

Deborah said...

I recently read a book titled 'The Fold' by An Na which is an interesting perspective on society's obsession with certain physical attributes (thin bodies and long, straight hair) and its disdain for others (ethnic features, curly hair, Rubenesque figures, and so on). I'd recommend the book to everyone. Hmmmm. Maybe worth another review.

Beeswax said...

I really, really liked this book. It stayed with me the way Amy Tan's books do. I loved the relationship between the two girls. I am fascinated with the way that in many cultures and throughout history, women have very little say in their own lives. I always come away feeling lucky and blessed to be a woman in this place and time.

I read See''s other book, Peony in Love, and didn't like it nearly as much. Still worth reading, though.

THose foot pictures are horrific. Is amazing that a whole culture full of men decided THAT was sexy. There is no accounting for taste.