Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

A Fair Trade Book

(Amazon wants you to know that a newer edition is available; this is the one I have.)

Title: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Author: Lisa See

Date: 2005

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 0-8129-6806-9

Length: 253 pages

Quote: “I dreamed that my mother would notice me and that she and the rest of my family would grow to love me.”

Where do I begin to describe this historical novel? Is it primarily about…

(1) A woman who desperately craves love, and her closest friend, and the nature of friendship.

(2) Nineteenth century China, including the not “secret” but simply overlooked “women’s writing” system called nu shu, and the Taiping Rebellion, and more.

(3) An old Chinese woman’s memories—actually,of life in the early twentieth century.

(4) The role of conformity in society; the possibility that mindless adherence to harmful customs may have some sort of social value of its own.

(5) All of the above, plus sex and violence.

I’d say (5).

Throughout history, people have found ways to cultivate social ties as a sort of back-up for those whose families don’t keep everyone “secure,” financially or emotionally. Clubs, “secret societies,” artisans’ guilds, religious fellowships, unions…and in nineteenth century China, in addition to marriage contracts, parents might invest in friendship contracts for their children. Middle-class women had little freedom, with their feet bound and very limited access to wheeled transportation, but in places where custom dictated that they visit their parents at several annual festivals, women friends could see each other and fulfill the obligations of these friendship contracts, known as lao tong. The contracts even stipulated that women friends would sleep together, apart from their husbands, during these visits.

Lily, the middle daughter in a middle-class family and narrator of this story, craves love. Feeling overlooked by her family, she pursues sister-love with Snow Flower. The girls become close friends and even share one of those moments of sexual exploration the curious young often confess later in life. (Lily never mentions any particular interest in sex with men and remembers cuddling with Snow Flower in loving detail.)  Snow Flower marries beneath her; her marriage is even abusive, but she likes sex anyway. If the women’s friendship is considered the primary plot, then a pivotal moment in the plot is Lily’s sense of betrayal when Snow Flower spends a night with her husband during Lily’s visit. Lily has a lot to say about the purpose of women’s lives being to maintain cultural standards. See leaves room for readers to imagine that Lily’s sense of outrage may come from other factors as well.

Nevertheless this novel does not seem to me to be primarily about the bitterness of a frustrated lesbian. Lily’s story is about her relationship to her society and culture, footbinding, needlework, cooking, nu shu writing (and learning isolated characters from the official Chinese writing system), camping in the mountains during the war (with bound feet, yes), in the end earning respect just by living long enough to be old. Whatever Lily’s sexual preference may be is not her primary identity in any case.

See’s informant about many of the customs of Lily’s village, she says in the endnotes, was a very old woman in a nursing home. The same lady also taught See several songs and poems that appear in the book…and also the rules of status and social hierarchy. Age was honored, the old lady emphasized. Ancestry mattered. Gender mattered terribly. Toughness was valued for women as well as men; footbinding defined a Real Lady more even than money or ancestry did, because a girl who could stand that much pain could stand anything. Learning was prized, most obviously for men since it qualified them for the best paid jobs, but also, although girls learned different subjects, for women. Parents bragged about their daughters’ painting and needlework, cooking, reciting poetry. The nu shu “letters” were often arrangements of polite conventional phrases, but those phrases rimed and could be considered a way of writing poetry...greeting-card-level poetry.

And yet, as ever…the most important aspect of status was money. The matchmaker who proposes Lily’s and Snow Flower’s friendship assures Lily’s family that Snow Flower’s family are richer than they are. They can believe this, because Snow Flower has learned more poems and more rich-girl affectations. Part of Lily’s dissatisfaction, later on, comes from the fact that although Snow Flower’s family used to be wealthy, they’ve become poor.

These characters live in “interesting times,” and See gives them a lively story. It's funny and sad, with births and deaths and lust and jealousy and grief and greed and battles and exotic food and beautiful landscapes and gross-outs and poems and celebrations and just about everything novel readers could want. I won’t spoil the plot by trying to discuss to what extent, if any, Lily ever finds love. Let’s just say that the combination of exotic settings and interesting historical events tends to be fertile ground for novelists. Carolyn See, Gus LeeAmy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston are themselves a generation further removed from Old China than Bette Bao Lord or Jade Snow Wong, and Lisa See is a generation further removed than they; nevertheless her novel is at least as interesting to read as theirs.

See is still alive and active in cyberspace so this and other "older" books, or editions of her books, are Fair Trade Books. This web site's usual rule applies: Send $5 per book + $5 per package by U.S. postal money order to the post office box at the bottom of the screen, or that amount + $1 per online payment to the Paypal address you'll get when you e-mail Message Squirrel Salolianigodagewi, and we'll send $1 per book to See or a charity of her choice. At least four books of the size of my copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would fit into one package; to buy four copies you'd send me $25, or $26 online, and See or her charity would get $4. You may order books by different authors in one package--as many as fit--and pay only one $5 shipping charge.