Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See

I bought the book pre-loved for $1.59.
This book is the first I've finished for the Travel the World in Books Readathon, and also the first I'll be critiquing towards my goal of two reviews. If you've seen my book map, you'll notice China is pretty bare for being such a large country with many people and interesting tales to tell, so I'll be reading more books from China in the future.

If you don't already know about foot binding, it was a practice in China that they used to make women's feet smaller (ideally three inches), and therefore more attractive. Also, women who have gone through the process have to wobble on their heels, giving them that damsel in distress look. The process could also cripple or kill the young girls who have gone through it, leading to people attempting to ban it. Like many old traditions, foot binding was forced underground until it was ultimately stomped out in 1949 by the Communist government.

The Plot:
The story follows Lily and Snow Flower, two laotongs (or old sames, essentially soul friends forever) who come from differing backgrounds in 19th century China. Snow Flower comes from a wealthy family, and knows the arts expected of a woman of wealth, such as the secret text of women known as nüshu. Lily comes from a poor family, and has more practical experience, but learns the script so they can communicate through weavings, letters, and their fan. Together, they grow from young girls with freshly bound feet to young women about to marry. But Snow Flower's lifestyle may not be as it seems...

If there ever was a quote to set the stage for the rest of the book, it would have to be this one:

"Although my face stung, inside I was happy. That slap was the first time Mama had shown me her mother love, and I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling,"
    ~Lily, page 23, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

If you've ever heard the phrase "tiger mother", this book definitely has one. I honestly have a lot of mixed feelings about this book because of the content. Although domestic abuse was part of day to day life in the nineteenth century, I've never been a fan of it portrayed in historical fiction. It takes a lot of work to make the book seem cohesive and realistic when you have random incidences of violence and acceptance of that gruesome violence sprinkled throughout.

The whole book isn't about Lily or Snow Flower, it's about their relationship and friendship together. While it does portray their interactions together well, I never felt like I knew either character, due in part to unremarkable personalities. I know they had to subdue their thoughts and feelings to be proper ladies, but I would expect through their nüshu script they would come out of their shells a bit more.

Some things that were unnecessary to the plot that are spoilerish: (Highlight to view)
Lily and Snow Flower undress and paint on each other with water. Growing up, I undressed with my friends (gym class, etc.), but there was never any touching involved- it came across as plain bizarre to the Catholic schoolgirl in me.
And near the end, the author decides to put in that Lily gets her husband not one but three concubines to make him popular in the village (after she hit menopause- hard), whom he has children with. I personally thought this added nothing to the book, except alienate me completely from Lily's character. I realize it's historically accurate and all, but this book is about female friendship, and the hubby is just a peripheral character- I don't care whether he got concubines or not.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a book that scrutinizes the friendship between to girls who grow up together in China in the 1800s. While the story of their friendship was to a certain extent compelling and there was a good feel for the setting, the characters fell flat for me. If you're looking for a historical fiction (with no romance added in) about the perils female friendship and domestic abuse, this may be the book for you.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars for a great book about non-romantic relationships!

Content: Ages 16+ for domestic violence and other issues.

Page Count: 258 pages in my battered paperback edition.


  1. I thought the part about her hubby was interesting, but yes pretty unnecessary to the plot. Agreed. I believe I gave this 3 stars as well. I listened to her book Shanghai Girls on audio earlier this year and liked it better.

    1. I think it's only about halfway through the marriage we even hear Lily speak her husband's name, so I felt anything to do with him in the book was pretty unnecessary- I would've edited that paragraph out of the book, even though it adds historically relevant elements to the plot.
      I liked Shanghai Girls less, but I'm a more a fan of older historical fiction (pre-1900s) so that may have swayed me- I rated both of them 3 stars on Goodreads (since there are no half stars).
      Thanks for commenting, Becca!
      ~Litha Nelle


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