Sunday, February 22, 2015

REVIEW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Original Publication Year: 2004
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: None
Awards: None
Format: Audio (downloaded from library)
Narrated by: Janet Song

This book has been on my TBR for a LONG time (hence why it is on my 100 books project list) but I honestly didn’t entirely know what it was about.  So let me clear that up right away – it is historical fiction that takes place in Imperial China (1800s) and tells the story of two girls who become the closest of friends – laotong or old sames.  The story is told by Lily as an old woman reflecting on her life and contemplating the mistakes she has made dwelling on those she most regrets.  

Right up front I should warn; this is a heartbreaking book.  I was listening to the final few chapters on my iPod while walking my dogs around town and it literally took almost everything I had not to begin sobbing – not quietly weeping – but hard sobbing.  These women have horrible lives just as a matter of course and it does not save them from the bad things that life brings as an extra burden. 

So it is a book that evokes emotions but is it a good story?  It is but don’t expect action-packed adventures – it is the story of the lives of these two women who are intertwined.  Much of the interest of the book is tied to the very authentic-feeling presentation of the lives of rural women in Imperial China.  Their lives are highly ritualized and seemed to be laced intricately with cruelty and repression.  The unexpected thing is that much of the cruelty and repression comes from other women.  I found myself frequently wondering how these modes of behavior became a ritualized and expected part of women’s lives and behavior – what was the advantage of a mother-in-law heaping abuse upon their daughters-in-law?  Why was the accepted mode of communication, even with one's friends, framed as scolding and disapproving of any behavior that was less than perfect or outside the norm?  Where was the natural human sympathy?

And then, of course, there is the foot-binding which I had always imagined was a painful process but I thought it consisted of just keeping one's feet restricted so they would not grow beyond a certain size.  Horrifying enough but doesn’t come close, as I discovered, to the mutilating and torturous reality.  The ideal size for a bound foot was 7 cm. or about as long as your thumb.  Lisa See’s description is vivid but I had to look up photos and dressed women with bound feet looked like they didn’t have feet at all; like they are tottering on stumps.  Naked, the feet looked deformed and grotesque to my modern western eyes and I cannot imagine how this practice became a necessity in that culture.  However, I have in my youth been a classical ballet dancer en pointe which isn’t exactly natural or good for one’s feet/body and yet I am in awe of the beauty of classical ballerinas.  Basically we humans are an odd and often incredibly cruel bunch.

There is a little twist at the end that I didn’t entirely buy into and while it is well written and readable it did not suck me in entirely – I didn’t spend my time in between listening sessions wanting to get back to it.  I also struggled to see if there was any lesson to be taken from the story or if the book was just fiction that elucidated an unfamiliar past.  I felt like, from my perspective, that most of what was on the page was so straight forwardly bad and terrible - there was no gray area or thought provocation.  This is why the book gets 3 out of 5 stars which for me means I liked it well but didn’t love it.  If I could be more precise I would likely give it a 3.5.

Final Verdict:  A vivid and heartbreaking portrayal of two women’s lives in Imperial China and I do recommend it! 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Read Harder Challenge - A book that takes place in Asia

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