Saturday, March 27, 2010

BookLook Review "Snowflower and the Secret Fan"

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”

Lisa See has written another beautiful best seller. It’s one of those sentimental historical novels we women can’t stop reading. Our individual purchases and group book club volume buys have supported many authors and their entire extended families – for generations. Jane Austen discovered our weakness for fictional women who rise above hopeless circumstances despite their own flaws and their fickle families and friends. We want to read about women like us. But not too much like us and only if they’re strangers from another time and place with much bigger problems.

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” fills all these story requirements. Lily was born in 1823 in the remote area of Hunan Province. China was still ruled by an emperor and the Taiping Rebellion of 1851 would not affect her life until she was a married woman. The vivid descriptions of the abuse of women within their families are heartbreaking. Lily narrates her story with a detachment which stems from not only her acceptance of this culture but her belief in its beauty and necessity.

When she endures the months of torture for her foot binding, she is stoic even after the death of her little sister whose feet become infected. The author shares the statistic that one in ten girls died from foot binding. And the barbaric practice continued in remote provinces until the early 1900’s. The detailed description of binding and breaking bones and mothers forcing their little girls to hobble across the floor every day on their broken feet is very difficult to read.

One of the fascinating parts of the story involves the secret writing used only by women in China. Secluded behind lattice windows in upstairs rooms, women learned to communicate secretly with beloved female friends and family members using characters called nu shu. Lilly and her friend (chosen by a matchmaker) write through the years on a fan which passes between them. Snow Flower is Lilly’s laotong, or “old same”. I loved this translation of a special friendship known as an “old same”.

The tragedies of the lives of these Chinese women make our troubles seem too trivial to mention. Although, if we could exaggerate just a little and market our story to book club women in China we may create a lucrative foreign market for selling American sentimental novels.

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