Saturday, March 31, 2007

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I finished this book too late at night (especially given that I had to get up the next day early to get ready for the ASCE conference), but it was so good I couldn't put it down.

This book is set in China during the 19th century in the rural Hunan county. It tells the story of a young girl named Lily, who is the daughter of local farmers that rent their land, and her friendship with a girl named Snow Flower, who is the grand daughter of an Imperial Scholar. The story is told by Lily as an eighty-year old woman looking back at her life starting from girl hood until she is an old woman.

The customs of Hunan County in China were interesting to read about. I was more than a bit disturbed by the very realistic description of the foot binding custom. I can't imagine why people would ever put young girls through such torture, and how that could have been beautiful. Maybe that is what future generations will think about plastic surgery today! The book also told about the details of arranged marriages and the customs followed for those.

The center of the story though is the custom of "laotong" or "old same," which is the pairing of young seven year old girls in an emotional match that is supposed to last a lifetime. This pairing is supposed to be even stronger than marriage. Lily and Snow Flower are paired at a young age as their "eight characters" match up. They help each other get ready for marriage and have a strong relationship afterwards. They communicate through the use of nu shu, which is a secret Chinese language for women that men can not read. The fan of the title is a fan that Snow Flower original gave Lily at the start of their friendship that they write the important events of their life on.

Although Lily made me angry at times with her misunderstandings, I loved this book and thought it was excellent. It gave a fascinating portrait of Chinese rural life, but more than that, it gave a fascinating portrait of a friendship. I highly recommend to anyone that likes to read historical fiction or about bonds between women. It would make an excellent book club discussion book.

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