Thursday, May 11, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See (read Feb 2006)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a powerful story about relationships, regrets, and life-long friendships. While set in a traditional Chinese world, almost anyone can relate to the themes and emotions in this book.

This story begins with Lily, a elderly Chinese woman in the mid to late 18th century, as she reflects upon her life as a woman. As most traditional women of her time, her passage to womanhood begins with her foot-binding. The success or failure of that sets in motion the luck of her future. With beautifully bound feet and good protocol, she is guaranteed a good husband and many sons.

Because of her good feet, she is given the opportunity to have a laotong, “old same”, named Snow Flower. This relationship is with another girl and is as sacred as a marriage as they are keep each other company through life. They converse using the secret women’s writing known as nu shu. Nu shu was a means of communication used by women in the Hunan province. This style of writing was more curved and fanciful than traditional Chinese calligraphy (men’s writing). Written on objects, sown into handkerchiefs, this writing looked more like art than literature. There were fewer characters that men’s writing, relying on the phonetics and context to convey the meaning. Many of these were also sung, having a rhythmic beat to the words. Not many examples of this art remains today. Many pieces were burned upon a person’s death, as was the tradition of the time. The art was further devastated during the Cultural Revolution where it was banned and all but died out until it was discovered again in 1983. Today it is viewed as a national historical treasure, with even a museum dedicated to the few remaining examples.

Lily and Snow Flower's laotong begins with a fan which they continue throughout their life to write messages to each other back and forth. While this relationship starts cheery and bright, the story progresses through the events that lead to Lily’s regrets in life as an old woman and how she betrayed her laotong. Ms. See does a wonderful job of describing the events of Lily’s life with so much color you feel as if you’re sitting along side her. For instance, as her feet are bound, you can feel her agony and wonder how they endured. All the while, Ms. See drops reminders into the story that manage to keep reminding the reader we are viewing this world through a window.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. One of my favorites.