Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Last night my book club discussed Lisa See's book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It is an old book which I am sure many of your enjoyed years ago. I did not reread it for this book club so my memory was slightly challenged as we discussed the details of the book. However, the haunting overtones and stifling emotional components were still quite memorable to me even 5 years later.

Lily grows up in 19th Century China, the second daughter of a farmer. Her future changes when a matchmaker looks at the six-year-old girl's feet and informs Lily's mother that, if bound properly, these feet can make Lily the most beautiful of women. For that is how a woman's beauty is reckoned, in Lily's culture. The fact that girls often die during the agonizing process's multi-year course makes no difference, because the mother who does not bind her daughter's feet guarantees the child an impossible future.

Snow Flower is born on the same day as Lily into a family of much higher status. The matchmaker makes for them a different kind of pairing - that of laotang, or "old sames." A match between two girls that will last throughout their lives, and draw them closer emotionally to each other than to anyone else. The two communicate through nu shu, women's writing, which is different from men's writing and is supposed to be kept secret from men. They send their messages back and forth on a fan, for women spend their lives in upstairs chambers.

Lily and Snow Flower grow from the seven-year-olds who sign a laotong contract into betrothed young women - into wives - into the mothers of families. Their lives become exceedingly different, and one day a misunderstanding so powerful comes between them that Lily believes their bond is broken forever. But love turns out to be stronger than Lily understands . . . and that, really, is this book's theme -- the nature and the strength of love.

Although Lisa See does a beautiful job of depicting the time and place her characters inhabit {which is far, far away from the time and place we inhabit}, this story of women and their friendships has universal echoes.

Our discussion last night centered on those themes: the immeasurable bond of certain friendships, the position of women in society {even today}, the inherent strength of women even in the worst conditions, the ability to bear the unthinkable, and the fact that while cultures may vary old sames and same-olds really don't change.

As a fitting touch to the evening, our sweet hosts had a fan for each of us. As we discussed the book we passed our fans around the room and wrote a short note on each. It was a lovely gesture. We all left with our own secret fan inscribed with encouraging words and lovely sentiments from friends.

Reading my fan when I returned home I was brought to tears. Women really are amazing. Yes,we are at times frustrated by the inequalities and injustices that still exist in our world. But one of these inequalities or stereotypical sexual differences also provides, in my opinion, one of our most mirific traits: the amazing beauty of and inherent ability of women to love and encourage each other. 

Thank goodness that trait endures the test of time.  

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