Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See


'Sakhi' Book Club Nov. 2010 Pick

             Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a mesmerizing tale of love, misunderstanding, betrayal and remorse. Beyond all that, it’s a story of enduring female friendship.

            At the tender age of seven Lily is united in what is meant to be an eternal bond of love with her laotong, Snow Flower. Their new relationship is translated for English readers as ‘old sames’, which can be interpreted to be soul mates. This relationship is of the until-death-do-us-part kind. The novel clearly delineates men’s world and women’s world, which can never be one and the same. (It is left to us to understand by inference that a man can never be a woman’s kindred spirit.) Both Lily and Snow Flower grow up to marry, move away, and raise families, but never allow themselves to drift apart.

            In the 19th century Chinese culture that the author places her novel in, a woman’s life is one of sorrow. Unwanted from birth, regarded as a burden upon the household, a girl can redeem herself only through marriage, and producing a son (preferably many sons). Even then, she is at the mercy of her mother-in-law who has the final say in domestic matters. To ensure as satisfactory a marriage as possible, a young woman has to present to her future in-laws a pair of ‘golden lilies’, dainty child-sized feet. To achieve this feat of podiatric wonder, girl children had their feet bound in a process that could be fatal, and was always excruciating. Foot binding resulted in broken toes, restricted movement, and often precipitated osteoporosis. Even when successful, what was achieved was a pair of deformed little stumps that would probably not satisfy any modern foot fetishist.

            In Lily’s case, her perfect ‘golden lilies’ gain her entry into a higher social standing, a kind-hearted husband, and tolerable in-laws. She was the luckier of the two laotongs. As the two young women settle into lives very different from one another, their friendship shows some signs of strain though they are still true to their bond. That’s until the growing chasm in their lives shatters under a misunderstanding that unleashes Lily’s hurt, and subsequently, her ferocious anger.

            Lisa See anchors her story in the heart of Chinese culture and tradition. Though foot binding is thankfully a thing of the past, certain traditions still endure. The story’s protagonists communicate with each other through nushu, a script exclusively developed and used by women, though now the Chinese government is apparently trying to preserve this unique part of their linguistic history.

            While reading about another country’s social mores, the reader is fascinated and/or repelled by customs and values that are alien to his own, but the purpose and the power of fiction are to transcend these divisive barriers. It would be a rare woman who couldn’t identify in some way with either Lily or Snow Flower.

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