Thursday, 7 July 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

In nineteenth-century China, women in the Hunan province developed a secret code, nu shu, for communicating with each other.  Kept away from work and politics, forced to spend their lives in the women's chamber with bound feet, they used nu shu to talk honestly about their lives.  After her own feet are bound, Lily forms a latong relationship with Snow Flower, a girl born on the same day as her, a friendship that is supposed to last until death.  But as their fortunes and lives change, Lily finds that her friendship contradicts what her new family would want.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan transported me back in time completely and utterly. I could hear the sounds of the paladins coming down the street, see the wonderful sights and smell the food.  Lisa See didn't overuse description or adjectives, but managed to evoke the time period.  She also captured how isolated and distinct from the rest of the world this part of China was, at times I felt as though I was reading about 15th or 16th century life, not 19th century life.

She also did a good job describing the horrors of footbinding.  Having already read Wild Swans, I thought I knew all about footbinding, but it is described in graphic detail in this novel.  The descriptions were vivid and just reading them made me wince - feet broken intentionally?  Blood and pus?  Constant agony?  It's hard for us in modern times and different cultures to appreciate exactly what about having bound feet would make a woman sexually appealing, but then I'm sure the same will be said in the future about many things we find attractive.

I felt that the first half of the book was amazing, but that the pace trailed off as soon as Lily and Snow Flower settled down into their marriages.  It was much more fun reading about them growing up, their family rituals and their negotiations for marriage.  There were also one or two anachronisms that did jar a bit - at one point Lily 'swept up the trash' and after a novel full of 'bed business' she suddenly 'had sex', a word choice that didn't seem to fit with the Chinese reserve at all.  I think I noticed these more because I'm a Brit reading the American version.

Verdict: A journey back in time to a very different place, well worth a read.
Source: Won from Maria at To Read, Perchance to Dream (many thanks!)
Score: 4 out of 5

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  1. This is my favorite book by Lisa See. I'm glad you enjoyed it, too.

  2. Beachreader, it's my first book of hers. There was an extract of Shanghai Girls in the back, and I really want to read that now!

  3. I read this book while I was recovering from a surgery on both of my feet; not the thing one wants to read about then with all the stories of foot binding! But, it remains my favorite of Lisa See's books. I liked how she explored marriage and friendship in this novel, as well as the mother/daughter relationship.

  4. I'm not grossed out by many things, but foot-binding is something I can't watch, hear about or read about. For some reason the subject itself really bothers me.

  5. I liked the book, gave it a solid four star rating. I think it's good that topics like footbinding and circumcission are discussed in books. Informing is the only way to stop that kind of madness.

    Looking forward to read Shanghai Girls, too.

  6. I loved the writing in this book, but the foot-binding details were brutal. Such a bizarre thing, but you're right--other societies past or future may find things like breast implants or botox quite disturbing!

  7. Thanks for the reminder. I read this a while back, and really LOVED it. You made me want to read it again -- it really does take you back to that time and place. I read everything she writes.

  8. Sounds like a interesting book, Too bad I was introduced by a movie ad! Hopefully Lynna Lai will talk about this book during her show!

  9. This does indeed look like a good book! I saw a copy at a book sale last week - I might have to go back and see if it's still there.

  10. Bellezza - no, it's definitely not what you want to read after surgery! Yes, I liked the range of relationships in the book too.

    Brenna - I didn't think it bothered me until I read this book and my feet started to tingle!

    Sabrina - I'm going to read Shangai Girls hopefully very soon.

    Shelley - Yes, they were brutal. Reading it even made my feet feel funny.

    Annette - This is the first Lisa See book I've read, but I will definitely read more, starting with Shanghai Girls next.

    Murdoc - Yes, I heard there is a film coming out, but there's no UK release date yet.

    Trish - You should read it, it's well worth it :)

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  12. I read this book a while ago. I loved the writing and like you, liked the first half better. The foot-binding details were so painful to read about. It sort of reminded me of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

  13. First time commenter! I read this one pre-blog. The footbinding was completely disturbing for me, and I couldn't believe it was such a common practice. Thanks for the review; I enjoyed reading your thoughts and thinking back on this good book.

  14. I loved this book as well. Just discovered your blog today and an so happy I did...very nice.

  15. Misha - I've heard about The Good Earth, I'll have to look out for a copy/

    Bailey - Yes, footbinding is shocking. I looked it up on the internet after reading this book and couldn't believe how painful it looked. Thanks for stopping by!

    Diane - Thanks for the visit :)

  16. Thanks for the Share!!
    Lovely Blog!!Send Flowers To make Someone Smile in UK!!
    Next Day Flowers

  17. I really enjoyed this book too! I've read most of Lisa See's work and there are aspects of many of her works that make it hard for me to choose a favorite. There's a film version of this one coming out in theaters soon (in the US at least) and I'm really curious to see how close the adaptation is to the novel!