Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a nice surprise. Yes, many of you have raved about how good the book was, but somehow I had managed to keep my expectation low. Most probably because it’s written by a woman, who despite of her Chinese heritage, is looking very white :). I don’t know how much Chinese blood she has–I couldn’t find much information about her family, but from the notes the book sounds thoroughly researched, so that should make up for a lot.

The book is most famous for its depiction of foot-binding, one of the most mysterious Chinese culture starting in 17th century. I have seen pictures of bound feet before, but it was my first time to read about it in details, how the small toes bones are broken, leaving only the big toe as the main center of balance with the heel. It is simply fascinating! Why would anyone do that? To herself and to her daughters. Jeez. Foot fetish?

There were also some cultural elements that I never heard of and made me wonder about how much truth in it. After all, this is a work of fiction, and things can be distorted by the author. The two major ones were the laotong relationship and nu shu language. Laotong relationship is a bond between two women that works almost like marriage between man and woman, even more sacred according to the book. Nu shu is a secret-code writing used by and created for women in remote area of Southern China. “It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use,” says the note at the front of the book. There’s documentary on this, which I’d love to watch: Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China.

The novel follows the life of Lily from her childhood to her very old years. Lily comes from a lower class family. By the turn of fate she is predicted to will have perfect lotus feet. It is important to know that the worth of a girl is determined by the size of her feet. So when Lily’s feet are told to potentially have the perfect shape, her status is already upgraded. That is how she is bonded to Snow Flower, a girl from higher class family, her laotong for life. The story then revolves around the friendship and life of these two women. Each changes the other’s fate.

My copy of the book (as the image above) has the endorsements from Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club). It’s really spot on. I believe if you enjoyed those books (or any Amy Tan’s) you’d love Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. There’s the same air of familiarity when I read it.

The little thing that bothered me was the names. Instead of Chinese names, See used the translated ones, like Snow Flower, Beautiful Moon, Plum Blossom. It’s so clunky! Why? Again, like I Am a Cat, this seems to apply only to the major characters. I guess all publishers think English speaking people can’t handle too many non-English names.

The language is very easy to read. Interestingly, it felt like translated work sometimes, because it’s either too harsh or childlike. For example:

“To me, she was still as ugly as a pig’s genitals, but I knew she had not yet fallen ill and that she would care for my children as though they were her own.” ~ p237

Who would describe someone ‘as ugly as a pig’s genitals’ in English books?!

Enough nitpicking. Though the writing is pretty plain, it’s hard for me not to like the premise. I’d recommend the book for its rich setting of 19th century China and it’s a perfect book for Women Unbound Challenge (though there’s lot of binding…) I would love to read more See’s books in the future.

2005, 340 pp

Lisa See’s official website
Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See’s Deep Fried Sugared-Taro Recipe
Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China

First line
I am what they call in our village one who has not yet died”–a widow, eighty years old.

China Challenge (book #2), Women Unbound (book #3), Herding Cats II (book #3), Reading the World

Also reviewed by
Liked it! Books for BreakfastDolce BellezzaSerendipity | Trish’s Reading Nook | 1morechapter | Bonnie’s Books
Not very. Rebecca Reads | Fyrefly’s Book Blog | A Striped Armchair

Let me know if you’ve reviewed this book too and I’ll link to yours.

Also, Happy New Year to You All! This is my last book of 2009. My year wrap-up is coming soon!

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