Thursday, April 21, 2011

Snow Flower And The Secret Fan - Lisa See

Snow Flower And The Secret Fan
Lisa See
Random House Publishing

The product description:
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, an “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together they endure the agony of footbinding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, their loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace in their friendship, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their relationship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a captivating journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. Now in a deluxe paperback edition complete with an expanded Random House Reader’s Circle guide and an exclusive conversation between Lisa See and her mother, fellow writer Carolyn See, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel is, as the Seattle Times says, “a beautifully drawn portrait of female friendship and power.”
I first read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan last year, after about a dozen people told me I should and absolutely loved it then. On this re-read, partly inspired by the trailer for the upcoming movie, my opinion hasn't changed a bit. I still consider Lisa See's novel to be incredible. It's a book that almost defies words. Despite being fiction, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan feels as though it's opening a window onto another culture - and the author's note at the end of the book just confirms it.

For the most part, the book is comprised of characters and character interactions: Lily, the main character spends most of her life confined within the house, and even more so within the upstairs chambers, which are considered to be the women's territory. And yet, even with the limited settings, the book doesn't feel repetitive at all, and it's certainly not boring. Nor is it confusing, even though Lisa See skips through her character's life quite a bit in order to jump to the various key events in it - childhood, footbinding, marriage, etc.

The way the two girls accept the constraints they live within - and even look forward to them seems almost unbelievable, and yet, within the context of the story they are perfectly understandable. Footbinding, for example. Nowadays such a thing is completely unthinkable. And the rigidity of expectations seems so extreme. There's a ceremony or title for everything it seems. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan serves to remind us all that the way we live now hasn't always been the way for everyone. And as a reminder of how short and dangerous life could be.

What Lily and Snow Flower live through is incredible. The book feels so real that it's almost as though the reader is there too. Of course, that's partly due to the perspective. The whole book is told from the perspective of Lily, so we only know what she knows about the world - and women were discouraged from learning about the outer world of men. That perspective is, I think what makes the misunderstanding that shapes so much of the story so believable. We feel what Lily feels.

Although Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is fairly short, it doesn't feel as though it's missing anything at all. The descriptions are thorough and vivid enough, especially where it concerns the people that Lily is around - her family and her husband's family especially. For all that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reads as though it's a memoir, and it covers so much, the book is not overly graphic in any way.

This is the kind of book that I find tends to inspire me to go find some non-fiction books about the time and place described, just so I can find out a bit more about the culture. And, I definitely know that I'm going to be re-reading this book again, probably more than once. It's just one of those books where I find that I can pick it up and immediately become immersed in the world Lisa See has created. I loved the read.

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