This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

This novel was recommended to me many years ago. When I looked it up, thinking it was some romance novel, I read the blurb and decided it wasn't really suited to my preferred genre.

But when I was packing up for the Philippines, I knew I would need several books on hand to read, after finishing A Dance with Dragons. I had only one from the library but that ended up being the third novel of a 'series' that I hadn't even read yet, so I begrudgingly started this one.

Initially, while well written, I was still not interested. But I decided to suck it up and just go with it. It was a small book. And it wasn't bad.

***Spoiler Alert***
This beautiful story is about Lily, a young Chinese girl who lives in the rural village Puwei. Her family struggles to provide for her, Elder Brother, Elder Sister, Third Sister, Second Brother, as well as her Uncle, Aunt and her cousin Beautiful Moon.

The first half of the book is dedicated entirely to Lily's childhood, specifically her match with a laotong - a strong, sisterly and lifetime bond with another girl with similar astrological profiles. It is a very formal match that is rare, since most girls have sworn sisters - a group of unmarried women within the village who spend time together until marriage. With laotongs, the bond lasts through marriage and is respected by the girls' families, even after marriage. Lily's match to a laotong is especially unique because Lily does not come from a respectable family but a diviner found her feet to be special, making Lily special.

And this, while very expensive for Lily's family, is welcomed because, in 19th century China, female children - daughters - are not welcomed and are considered irrelevant. But to Lily's family, her special-ness meant a possible good match for a husband that would also help provide for her family.

Her laotong is Snow Flower, a young girl from a much more affluent family. Snow Flower stays with Lily often, living with her and teaching Lily the ways of sophistication, while Lily taught Snow Flower how to clean and do other housework.

The bond is almost instant between the girls and the novel does a beautiful job of developing the love they have for one another. Beautiful Moon, Lily's cousin, is also a part of their lives and we read through their feet binding process, which is fricking incredible. It was so difficult to read about this: which essentially is breaking these young girl's feet by binding them so tightly so that their feet would stop growing, and have a shape of a lotus. It's horrific and is expected for every girl, around age 6.

I enjoyed the novel but didn't realize I was fully vested until Beautiful Moon's death. At that moment in the book, as tears streamed down my face, I was just enjoying the story, not aware of how deep these characters had become.  It was at that moment that I became a fan of Lisa See, and her gift for writing these characters out, that I knew them so well that when Beautiful Moon died, I was mourning too. I love this last paragraph, from the chapter of Beautiful Moon's death:
The flower tower helped protect Snow Flower and me, and it placated Beautiful Moon's restless spirit, but it did nothing for Aunt and Uncle, who could not be consoled. All that was meant to be. We were at the mercy of powerful elements and could do nothing but follow our fates. This can be explained by yin and yang: There are women and men, dark and light, sorrow and happiness. These things create balance. You take a moment of supreme happiness like Snow Flower and I felt at the beginning of the Catching Cool Breezes Festival, then sweep it away in the cruelest way with Beautiful Moon's death. You take two happy people like Aunt and Uncle, then turn them in an instant into two end-of-the-liners with nothing to live for, who, when my father died, would have to rely on Elder Brother's kindness to care for them and not throw them out. You take a family like mine that is not so well off, then ad the pressure of too many weddings in one household...All these things disrupted the balance of the universe, so the gods set things right by striking down a kind-hearted girl. There is no life without death. This is the true meaning of yin and yang.
This would not be the only time I would shed tears.

When Lily married, I cried. When Lily broke off her laotong relationship with Snow Flower, I cried. When Snow Flower died, I cried. It is just an amazingly powerful novel, in a mere 258 pages. Reading about what Lisa See did for the research to create this wonderful story is just as incredible. She should write a book on that alone.

These are characters that will stay with me for a long time. I thought See did splendid with building the first part of the novel by dedicating it to their childhood, and having the reader 'grow up' with these girls and then the last half quickly breezes through their marriage, the births of children, and then aging. As they recall their youth, I could recall it as though it were 'yesterday', the way they looked back. Amazing that a novel can feel like this for me.

I don't think I can watch the movie. The novel is too beautiful - almost like one big poem. And the painful parts, including the physical act of food-binding, would be too much for me to endure.

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