I recently finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. It’s a captivating story of two girls who are bound in a laotong relationship in 19th Century China. One is the daughter of a rich man, and the other is a daughter of a poor man. Each clings to her laotong for comfort, friendship, love, and strength to endure whatever life throws at them.
The story itself is really the exploration of female relationships and friendships. It explores the relationship between mothers and daughters, social relationships, and the more fulfilling deep friendships that every woman longs to have. The context of 19th Century China gives it a poignancy it would not have otherwise, because of the little value placed on females in general.
Snow Flower and Lily become friends (and laotongs) at the age of seven. They spend a lot of time together until it is time for them to marry and nothing can change the way they feel about each other. Until many years after their marriages when a misunderstanding takes place and tarnishes their friendship.
It’s a story about love, hope, loss, and forgiveness. It’s beautiful and breathtaking at the end. I cried and I laughed. And then I thought about my various friendships and wondered if I was doing enough to cherish them. It’s a pretty good book, mostly.
A dear friend recommended this book to me, along with a caution that she wasn’t sure that I would like it. Having now read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I can understand why she was concerned. There are two things in the book that keep it from being a truly great book in my eyes.
The first was part of the discussion of the practice of binding feet. Of course I didn’t object to the discussion until the women involved began to describe the feet in an explicit way. That made me uncomfortable, but it was momentary and not mentioned again. If they’d gone on and on I would have not read the rest of the book.
My second and greatest objection came much later in the book, when the girls were fifteen or maybe a little older. One night it is really hot and they have the room to themselves. They take off their clothes to get cooler and… let’s just say they do a little experimenting. This is my real objection to the book. I don’t think it was necessary to add this little scene to demonstrate how close they were to each other. Call me old fashion or a prude, but it doesn’t change how I feel about this kind of stuff in a book (or anywhere else!). I almost didn’t finish the book.
That aside, it is a fascinating look at 19 Century China’s attitudes toward women, beauty, and social standing. I am interested in reading another of her books, with the hopes that it doesn’t have explicit stuff in it.