Monday, June 13, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

When this book first came out I was fascinated and surprised. Someone actually wrote about Nu Shu and foot binding with research and sincerity? The author, Lisa See, was even able to interview the last elderly woman that was able to read and write nushu? No freaking way. I went to the bookstore more than once conflicted on whether or not to buy, full of mixed anxious nervousness and excitement. It took quite a few tries, skimming and budgeting before I closed my eyes and paid for the book full of trepidation.

As much as I love the worlds of the written English language, one can hardly deny that the writers of history tended to be bias (whether they meant to or not) of what was acceptable and deviant. I worried for the content to be cautionary tales of how Asian women were oppressed and needed to be saved by a Western mentality or the foreign oriental exoticism of Asia (like how The Geisha ended up imho). Whether one agreed with any particular practices, it was hard not to have them automatically written off as bad/barbaric/stupid without so much as a study of the history, mythology, or even culture/social influences.

Granted, I’m not telling everyone to go out and get their feet bound, but one can make the same discussions of liposuction, augmentations by stuffing plastics and whatnot into the body, or various plastic surgery techniques for…social status? *coughrealitytvhousewivescough* Oh, wow, my throat definitely need some clearing up. XP Anyhoo…Even old-school corsets were intentionally used to alter the ribcage and squished the organs together in order to have that hourglass figure. I can go into a complete rant about societal obsessions with female youth, beauty and sexuality, but that can be saved for another day. Lol.

Onto the review…
A few notes before we start:
- written in person by Lily, an eighty year old woman.
- the book was her way of telling the story of the woman she loved the most, Snow Flower.
- Snow Flower and Lily were laotong which meant “same old,” which was a relationship contract to cement an almost closer than family relationship between these two women that were unrelated by blood.
- Nushu was a phonetic way of writing that only existed among the Yao group of women as a way to communicate

This whole book was rather fascinating to read. Due to the amount of information Lisa See packed in the book, you need a chunk of time to sit and read carefully. A single line made all the difference in the timeline and would alter the impact of the events later. The author had a wonderful way of writing without judgment and I can almost see how much research she had put into it, but it was extensive as the story switched between Chinese English, English, and Chinese.

The prose was good and stayed as true as possible to the language. It might seem disjointed in the beginning, but once you become accustomed to it, the words read beautifully. This was a complex and layered book, but was such a quick read the words painted themselves like the songs the women sang. It painted a world that was almost unreal I was not even sure I could comprehend or believe in, but still felt so real I could almost here their songs. I could not put it down.

Rather than explain everything, the author was able to write in a way where it felt as if the social construct of the world/time Lily lived in really was just that. Lily was not an outside character looking in, nor was she trying to justify the practices and norms. There was quite a lot of, I don’t know how else to call it, but folk beliefs. And example was the idea that because you were born under a certain zodiac sign it would influence people’s views and actions. Both Lily and Snow Flower were Horses and as such, Lily made the mistake and expected Snow Flower to act what Lily believed a Horse should. Although Lily realized her mistakes (abatedly too late), the story did not end with a true resolution. There was no magical redemption, just the regret Lily felt. I do love Snow Flower though and it must be the love Lily felt for her as well.

It was a wonderful book that whispered of the past filled with hardship, but was so realistic I can almost imagine these things having happened. These characters felt like real human beings with their flaws and their strengths, their hopes and disappointments. I wanted a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but that’s not real. We can’t all have closure and as people, we make mistakes. There will always be regrets. The important thing was to be true to the people we love and not let our hearts waver for that was how mistakes start.

It was such an intricate tale of love, longing and regret but timeless. It never felt too heavy handed even as some of the situations really pissed me off. There was such subtle ways of bringing up issues of gender, power, and destiny and really just left me there thinking. Heck, I tried writing this review several times over and over again in the span of weeks no joke. O_o

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, but probably won't re-read too often. The language sucks me in, but the story makes me too sad. I know it’s not for everyone (I lent it to a friend and it was a DNF for her), but this was one of those books where I felt transported back to the days of my youth, a young child listening to the stories my grandparents would tell. :) Maybe that was why I enjoyed the book, Lily and Snow Flower reminded me of women I once knew. One day, I'll write on those.

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