Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
What a fascinating novel.
Set in China's Jiangyong County in the 1800s, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of two women and their lifelong friendship. It also tells the broader story of women's culture during that period with special attention paid to nu shu, the women's secret writing, and the formal friendship relationships between women.
Constructed as an autobiography and an accounting of the narrator's life for her ancestors (it’s interesting to note that the Library of Congress "Reminiscing in old age--Fiction" as the primary subject of the book), the novel is constrained by this structure and by the narrator’s own reticence. However, I think those constraints add authenticity to the tale.
I'm not a scholar of Imperial China by any stretch, but I will say that the book seems very well-researched. I, for one, appreciated See’s comments in the ‘Author’s Note and Acknowledgements’ section.
I think I'm going to pick up a copy for my mom for Christmas because I think she’d love it.
One thing that sticks in my mind...
When Lily, the narrator, described someone as having feet that are fourteenth centimeters long, twice as big as her own. It just blew my mind. Seven centimeters. That’s unfathomable.
As westerners we may feel the need to dwell on the physical horrors of footbinding when reading this novel, but there is so much more to it than that. Again, I was struck by something that the narrator penned in her prologue:
"The binding altered not only my feet but my whole character, and in a strange way I feel as though that process continued throughout my life [...]. By the time I was forty, the rigidity of my footbinding had moved from my golden lilies to my heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly that I could no longer forgive those I loved and who loved me" (4).