Happy Holidays to everyone out in blogland! I have a great lineup of new release titles to review in January, and I’m counting the days until the 2012 BEA so I can bring you the latest on upcoming books. But in the meantime, here is another backlist title that I read last week and really enjoyed:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Originally published in 2005, this book has been a favorite of book clubs for years and was recently made into a film. Due to its success, the novel was reprinted in 2011. It’s a story about the personal and often complicated relationships women have with each other, and what can happen when those relationships are tested.
While the story is set in 19th century China, specifically in the Hunan province, it’s a story that modern women can relate to quite easily. Lisa See based her book on the concept of nu shu, an old form of secret writing created by women for the purposes of clandestine communication. Chinese women in this time period would write coded messages on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs, and send them to their closest friends. Through these communications, women could vent their most personal feelings about the joys and hardships in their lives, without being found out by their husbands.
Lily and Snow Flower are two such women who use nu shu to write to each other in private. They are laotong, (“old sames”), meaning they were matched by their families into an arranged friendship and swore an oath to remain friends for life. Lily and Snow Flower experience all the major events in their lives at the same time: footbinding, arranged marriages, the birth of children, and also sickness and hardship. Through their nu shu writing, they manage to keep in touch with each other over the years. But as is still often the case with modern women, a misunderstanding between the two characters threatens to end their friendship forever.
The primary plot kept my attention, but what I really enjoyed about this book was the glimpse into 19th century Chinese family politics. Reading about how poorly women were treated (even in wealthy families) was both disheartening and fascinating. In Chinese society, a daughter was referred to as a “useless branch,” and a woman’s worth was measured by the number of sons she could produce. A woman wasn’t even considered a member of her in-laws’ family until she had a baby (which had better be a boy); until then she was treated like an inconvenient guest in her husband’s home. Lisa See included a lot of detail about family relationships and traditions, and she spared no detail in her description of the footbinding ritual (that chapter turned my stomach).
Though the story takes place nearly two hundred years in the past, this is a story that 20th century women can relate to. We’ve all had longtime friendships that we try to preserve, we’ve all tried to find ways to communicate with female friends without our parents or husbands knowing, and we’ve all had petty misunderstandings with our friends. The concepts of friendship and loyalty are timeless, and that’s why this book is so appealing. I would encourage you to read the book before seeing the film, as films often do not do justice to their source material.