Lisa See’s new novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan contains elements that should make a good story. Set in 19th century China, we are given a glimpse into the realm of women, their traditions and culture as they live in a repressive society. To the modern womman, some of it is hard to read. Women in 19th century China, like many places in that age and even today, endured a great deal of subjugation by men. See chooses to focus on the bonds between women. She crafts her novel around a forgotten secret code developed by Chinese women, called nu shu. They used it to communicate with the laotung or ‘old sames’, the women they were sometimes paired with at a young age. These relationships lasted lifetimes and Lily’s story is about her bond with her laotung, Snow Flower.
Lily lives in a remote Hunan county, part of a farming family. Early on, Lily is told she is special by a matchmaker, Madame Wong. Her ‘golden lilies’, or her bound feet, will be special enough to secure a match that will bring her standing up in the world. Bound feet make a position in society. Lily’s mother’s feet were wrpped badly, so that she needs a cane to walk, thus diminishing her value. The smaller the foot, the better. Upstairs in the women’s quarters at the age of 7, Lily, her cousin Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister all have their feet bound at the same time. See makes clear the role of women in the household. They were used for making matches and doing the housework. As the second daughter, Lily is not very important, but her special feet bring her standing up. Lily’s laotung pairing comes when she is 8. The matchmaker comes with the potentail match, which is discussed much like a marriage. She also brings Lily a beautiful fan, with nu shu written on each fold. This fan will keep appearing as the landmarks in Snow Flower and Lily’s lives are added to each fold. The rest of the book follows Lily and Snow Flower through their marriages, childbirth, and so on.
The story is a strong one, and unfortunately See does not seem able to carry the weight. The rich historical details are given to the reader rather than letting them unfold by themselves. This ruined much of the book for me. The intricacies of Chinese society, which can seem foreign to the West, are explained each time they pop up. I’d rather that they were shown to me. And See can’t resist obvious foreshadowing and playing to modern sensibilities. During a very difficult period, when Lily is visiting Snow Flower’s family and they are forced to flee to the mountains to escape the Taiping revolt. Snow Flower’s husband has the lowest position in society—he’s a butcher and one with an angry temperament. After their second son dies, he beats Snow Flower so badly, she miscarries. “Her body bruised and torn from the daily punishment her husband rained down on her. Why didn’t I stop him? I was Lady Lu. I had made him do what I wanted before. Why not this time? Because I was Lady Lu. I could not do more. He was a physically strong man, who did not shy away from using that strength. I was a woman, who, despite my social standing, was alone. I was powerless. He was well aware of that fact, as was I.” Why include this part at all? I could infer this myself. It’s the added explanation, just in case the reader doesn’t get it, that irked me about this book. Maybe some like it, but I’d rather figure things out myself.
I really wanted to like this book. I love historical novels. In a good one, I can imagine myself living the life that is being described to me. The story here, while rich with details, was too thin for me to imagine clearly. The flaws distracted me from the story too much.