For the past month I have enthusiastically embraced each commute and school pick-up queue because it gives me the opportunity to listen to Lisa See’s amazing novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, narrated by the talented Jodi Long. See’s saga transports the listener to 19th-century rural China, tracing the relationship between Lily, from a peasant family, and Snow Flower, from a wealthier family in a neighboring village.
Upon preparation for binding Lily’s feet at the age of six, a matchmaker takes notice of their exquisite shape. Because of the promise of perfectly beautiful bound feet – in a culture and time where the ideal female foot was three inches long – the matchmaker senses that Lily could make an excellent marriage with a family whose social standing is much higher. To facilitate this, the matchmaker makes a laotong (“old sames”) match between Lily and Snow Flower, a girl from a neighboring village whose upbringing educated her as to all of the etiquette and cultural things that Lily would be expected to know as a married lady of a more wealthy house.
The girls promise each other mutual support, friendship, and eternal love. Their relationship shapes them both through their formative years, and they keep in touch between visits by writing on a fan in nu shu, secret women’s writing that they are taught as young girls and encouraged to use in women-to-women communication. However, Snow Flower obscures the fact that her family has fallen into disgrace from her father’s opium habit and that her future looks very different than Lily’s. Just as Lily is learning from Snow Flower the skills she needs to be married to the first son of the powerful Lu family, Snow Flower is learning the household skills from Lily that she needs to know to be the wife of a poor butcher, a despised trade because of its “polluted” nature. Snow Flower’s lies about her family’s background deeply wound Lily, and cause the beginning of a fracture that will widen through the years.
As married women, the two stay in touch, through pregnancies, child raising, miscarriages, and all of the trials of daily life. During one visit to Snow Flower’s village, war with the Tai Pe rebels comes upon them and Lily must flee for her life to the mountains with Lily and her husband’s (whom Lily simply calls “the butcher”) family. The butcher’s skills keep her alive during the long, cold three months in the winter, but she also learns truths about Snow Flower that affect their relationship even more.
This book was mesmerizing – fascinating in its details about foot-binding, life in rural China in the 19th century and its many, many restrictions and conventions, and nu shu, the secret women’s writing that is truly represented. However, at the core of this are the same emotions that are repeated throughout time and in any place: love, passion, misunderstanding, betrayal, jealousy, and hatred.
The library owns the print
version of the story. You can visit Lisa See’s Web site
for more information, including a peek into why she wrote the book.