Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)

“No one said I could die. It wasn’t until I moved to my husband’s home that my mother-in-law told me that one out of ten girls died from foot-binding, not only in our country, but across the whole of China.”

Quick Review

I gave Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: ★★★★☆

Why you should read this book: It’s a compelling read about the deep friendship of two women in the oppressive patriarchal culture of China in the 1800’s. There are some particularly descriptive parts of this tale which will stick with you for quite a while. Even if you take nothing from the fictional story here, you will be struck by the historical realities which make this novel so richly detailed. Foot-binding and the secret language of nu shu are just two examples of this, which are utilised powerfully by Lisa See. However, I think most readers would be hard-pressed not to take a little of Lily’s story to heart. Here, there is great love and sadness, peppered with violence, lies and erotic undertones.

Full Review

I recently became a Kindle Keyboard 3G owner and one of the perks of this is the occasional ability to take advantage of Amazon’s Daily Deal. If you’re not familiar with this and you own a Kindle, you should be! Granted, they’re going to be popping a lot of duds in there, but occasionally, there’s a small spark of reading goodness to be had. Essentially, Amazon allows you to download a Kindle book for a fraction of its usual price each day. Worth keeping an eye on for a surprisingly good read at a low cost.

Anyway, as an impulse buy on the Daily Deal, I picked up Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  The free sample was intriguing enough, and the low cost encouraged me to go for it. I did have some trepidation, as I have read quite a few titles in this vein before and they can be desperately depressing sometimes.

However, I was quickly sucked into Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. There’s a strange bluntness and separation in the first person narrative that clashes brilliantly with the unpleasantness of Lily’s early life; her accepted position as a ‘useless girl’, foot-binding and her mother’s apparent lack of regard for her. It serves as quite a realistic portrayal of life for a poor girl in 19th century China. See has thoroughly done her research, and it seeps through onto each page. I want to add at this point that the author does almost too good a job with certain descriptions – when it came to the foot-binding process, I cringed away from the page a few times.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, but I will say that it is an enduring one. We follow Lily through various important stages of her life, beginning with her relationship with Snow Flower, a girl who is to become her laotong – a relationship in which the two are bonded as sisters for life. This relationship is impacted by their new families, their children, and events in the country around them.

This book won’t change your life, but I think most women will relate to it in some way. I have to give See her due for her commitment to realism – not just for historical accuracy, but for the relationship between Snow Flower and Lily. Although most women will have close relationships which do not exactly resemble theirs (you have to remember that laotong were seen to be in a marriage of sorts), you can relate to the joy of someone who accepts you, and the pain of a friendship which was not exactly as you thought it was.

It only took a day for me to get through this book, so it’s not a long read, but it’s absorbing and enjoyable. Its historical relevance has also taught me a little something, and coming away from a novel with a worthwhile history lesson, is always a good thing. Even if you don’t enjoy this book, at the very least it’ll certainly make you think the next time you complain about the agony your new high heels are causing.

As for the negatives, from a technical perspective, the Kindle version of this book had a few issues with misprinted words. This is not distracting and not a problem of huge proportions – it may well be present in the physical copy of the book too, so I can’t confidently pinpoint the digital transfer as the culprit. The text itself was largely free of weak points, but it does lose one star on account of the narrative. I do think that the deliberate distance that Snow Flower is kept at is a wonderful tool as the novel progresses, but at certain points I felt an urge to hear more than what Lily was telling us. Whether this limitation was integral as the story unfolds, or too harsh, is a matter of opinion.

Overall, you won’t be disappointed with this book. You don’t need to understand or be interested in Chinese history and culture to appreciate it, but you will certainly enjoy it if you do have an interest. At the core of this book is an absorbing tale of powerful friendship, written by a compelling and talented author.