At my former job, a coworker of mine was floored that I’d never read this book. I found a copy at a used book sale and it sat on my shelf for a few years. Then I heard that Lisa See was coming to town for a signing! I read her other book, Shanghai Girls, and got a copy of this one signed. I grabbed the audiobook before I had time to pick up the physical one and I wish I’d grabbed it sooner. This was a great story.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Other books by Lisa See reviewed on this blog:
Summary from Goodreads:
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.
As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear.
However See did her research for this book, she did it right. It was very easy to picture life in early 1800s China. Their culture, so different from mine, seemed natural after listening to the book for a little while. The foot binding scene caused me to gag in the middle of a run. My husband had to stop and ask me if I was okay. It was so vivid that it was terrifying. The time in the mountains was frighteningly vivid, too. There were a lot of good moments in this book that go back to how talented a writer See is.
I think the mark of good writing is seeing a story through one character’s point of view and not realizing how slanted or biased that view is until it’s pointed out. See did a great job of this. Lily’s views seemed natural to me as the reader and I never questioned her interpretation or views until Snow Flower or the Sworn Sisters pointed out how she was wrong. Lily was more complicated than she at first appeared and Snow Flower’s many layers are evident in the story. Both are wonderful characters.
I liked Snow Flower best because she was easier to analyze and feel sympathy for in the book. When Lily’s flaws were pointed out, I almost took it personally because I felt I knew was her. Snow Flower’s bad fate and hardships were sympathetic and I could see her struggles and feel for her.
I’m very much like Lily. When things are going badly, I persist. I tend to think that something that’s gone wrong must be because I didn’t follow a rule or instruction and I try to get others to conform to this as well. I’m not a great listener much of the time and Snow Flower and Lily’s adult relationship reminded me of many of my own.
The months in the mountains were very emotional in my mind. I felt bad for Snow Flower and Lily and got a sense of the desperate situation they were in from See’s writing. Snow Flower’s mother-in-law was quite wicked and the preference given to her second son was really shocking. Snow Flower’s husband confused me because he seemed angry and soft moments apart but that could easily stem from the difficult situation he was in up in the mountains.
Spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph to avoid it. Lily’s realization that Snow Flower had not abandoned her after Snow Flower’s death was almost impossible to listen to. It was so heartbreaking to hear the Sworn Sisters be so cruel to Lily and to hear about Snow Flower’s suffering for the many years they were apart. Lily’s realization that she’d never apologized to Snow Flower was crushing! It was a really sad end to a story that was very sad and while it was fitting, it didn’t make it easy to get through!
Janet Song narrated the audiobook I listened to and I thought she did a great job. She used voices for the characters that were just different enough to tell them apart without any sounding like a mockery. I thought her pacing and intonation were good and it was to a point where I didn’t notice her, which to me means she’s doing a great job.
Lily wanted forgiveness and had trouble giving it herself. The message I got from this book was that friends can be closer than blood but we have to work on those relationships as much as we work on marriages and family relationships. There was a communication breakdown between Snow Flower and Lily that neither was able to correct and it created a rift between them that was never healed. They both needed forgiveness and neither was forthcoming with it. In the end, it poisoned their beautiful friendship.
Writer’s Takeaway: I believe the best historical fiction is when you don’t even realize that it’s historical. The setting felt so natural that I would forget this was 1850s China. It can be really hard to work historical context into a story in a way that will not shock the reader and See did an amazing job with this.
A great book that I’m glad I finally read. Four out of Five Stars.
Until next time, write on.