Sunday, January 25, 2009

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

So fine; I gave up on War and Peace for the time being. There are too many books out there begging to be read for me to give up precious time slaving over a horrible translation of what I'm sure is a spectacular book, but which at this point, has no chance in hell of being remotely appreciated by me. So I will go back to it. Sometime. Maybe.

Instead, I spent part of my Barnes and Noble gift card (which I sadly burned through like it was a stick of butter set on top of a blazing oven) on Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. What a beautiful book. It is the story of Lily, who at the age of 80, an age few women in 19th-century China would have lived to see, looks back on her life and tells us of her greatest love and of her greatest sin.

The book's focus, a friendship between two women, was riveting and heart-rending. Paired as "laotongs", or, "Old Sames" (essentially soul mates) as children, Lily and Snow Flower forge a bond from their foot-binding days of girlhood until their last breaths. The contract of the laotongs transcends all other contracts and is unbreakable. Set against the backdrop of strict social customs, changing fortunes, arranged marriages, and the trials and triumphs of motherhood in a time and place where only boy babies counted, Lily and Snow Flower are each other's sources of strength and comfort. When separated, they communicate through "nu shu", or "women's writing", carefully inscribed on a silk fan.

The intricacies of social custom, and the stoicism with which women were expected to bear the inevitable circumstances of their lives made the book all the more heart-breaking. The process of foot-binding andmatch-making, and rituals of singing laments and well-wishes to the bride before she leaves her "natal" home for that of her husband's--all of these elements of the life of a Hunan woman at this time were described in such lyrical detail that the modern reader is both horrified and awed.

It isn't all beauty and loving commitment between Lily and Snow Flower, however. Their contract is threatened through the misunderstanding of a message written onto the secret fan. The irony that in a story based around the written communication between these two women, that it should be their "nu shu" messages that lead their friendship into peril was fascinating.

I've always found the dynamics of the friendships of women to be at least as interesting, if not more, than that of the relationships between men and women. Raised to be companions and competition, the potential for fiercely devoted love and bitter rivalry and jealousy is so much stronger than that between members of the opposite sex. Also, having always believed that a woman is far more likely to find her soul's true mate in a female friend rather than a boyfriend or husband, this book spoke to me of the immense power of friendship and the need to always keep your girlfriends close to your heart and mind, regardless of life's circumstances.

Next up: Revolutionary Road. I can't bring myself to spend a date night with Husband watching Leo and Kate tear it up as a miserable married couple, so I'm going to read the book instead.


Kristin Dodge said...

Yay, I'm glad you liked this. I feel the same way about women's relationships. I think only women can cut your soul more deeply, whether tattoos or scars.

Tress said...

I'm with you on War and Peace. There it sits, next to my bed. I will get to it, but I just can't stand the commitment right now.