Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2006) a novel by Lisa See is an underwhelming tale of life in nineteenth century China. Its main character Lily fails to arouse our interest in her life. She is portrayed as a shallow woman, who despite her claim that she longs to be loved ruins her one promising female relationship. Lily, who later becomes the powerful Mrs. Lu, is an ugly person who never really deserves her loutang, or best friend. She is spiteful, insensitive and abusive. In fact, the women in this novel with the exception of one servant loyal to Lily are despicable, constantly backstabbing and looking out only for themselves. Snow Flower, the one promising character in the novel, is at first portrayed as a fun, loving, beautiful and inquisitive girl. She supposedly awakens a lust for life in Lily that never goes beyond talk. Snow Flower, used to highlight Lily’s social success, becomes a pathetic woman more interested in having many sons than with life “in the outer realm”. I kept hoping she would join the Taipings and become a revolutionary, and yet she dies after a miserable existence married to an abusive man who belongs, lo and behold to the butcher caste. Being a butcher is somehow seen as one of the more disgusting low-level jobs in a rather non-convincing caste system. (Maybe that was the way it really happened but Lee’s narrative and justification lacked credibility.) Is Lee a vegetarian?
The novel begins with the promise of an exciting tale of secret writings between women. However, the writings—although the men either ignore the practice or despise it-- are not really secret and there is no true secret within the things they write, in this novel at least, that must be revealed at the end. The fan, that contains the secret nu shu writing the sworn sisters share, is full of platitudes and romantic dribble from two seven year old girls who think it’s cool to have a pen pal. As one critic I read said, this novel would have been better off as a book of non-fiction recreating the tradition of the foot binding—a barbaric Chinese tradition that I am sure had its detractors even in nineteenth century China. As a matter of fact, the Taipings, that the novel calls on for some historical drama were vehemently opposed to the ritual, but See fails to mention any kind of rebellion (except for the children’s fear of pain) over this practice that made women practically useless for anything but sitting in the women’s chamber, sheltered from the real world. I wonder if it had anything to do with a distorted sense of solidarity with Chinese history??
Lisa See is no Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club ***) or Anchee Min (Katherine***). Not a novel I would recommend; not even the history behind it makes it compelling. If you are interested in footbinding, nu shu, or the practice of loutang, better to read the Wikipedia entry. Although I pride myself in not reading anything that does not carry me all the way through, (too many books to read, too little time), I felt obliged to finish this novel because a friend I respect recommended it.