Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See, Random House, Inc, 2005, 253 pp
I have mostly been reading in the 1950s, still trying to finish up that year. Only 6 books to go! But I still get to some current stuff now and then. I have owned this book ever since it first came out last year. Lisa See is the daughter of Carolyn See, who wrote a wonderful book about the writing life, Making A Literary Life, Random House, 2002. I went to Carolyn's book signing in LA and got on her mailing list, which is how I first learned of Snow Flower. Now I have finally read it thanks to one of my reading groups, where it was a pick for March.
It is quite a story concerning women in 19th century China and a secret form of writing created by women and passed on only to women, which allows them to communicate their most intimate thoughts with each other. Lily is a five year old daughter in a fairly poor household when the story begins. Already she knows that she is worthless because she is a girl. The story is told by Lily from the vantage point of an 80 year old woman, who has lived longer than she ever expected to live. She is trying to expunge her guilt over things she did in her life.
Due to several propitious events, the young Lily married well and became the head woman of her husband's village, but she misused her good fortune and her power, deeply hurting the person she loved most in the world: her "old-same" Snow Flower. Lily and Snow Flower met when they were six years old, through the workings of a match maker. An "old-same" or laotong is another girl born on the same day and with similar astrological signs. The idea is that they will be life long friends and the relationship is sometimes the only love these women have, due to their lowly status, their arranged marriages and the customs of the times.
Lily and Snow Flower go through their footbinding at the same time. This was excruciating for me to read about. They are only seven years old (some girls went through this at age six), the binding actually breaks the bones in their feet, and the pain is extreme. I have a seven year old granddaughter and I kept imagining such a thing being done to her.
As the two friends grow, get promised to men, marry and have children, they spend time together during certain holidays and write to each other in the secret language on a fan, which they send back and forth. All the ceremonies and customs and foods were fascinating to learn about. "Catching Cool Breezes" is a euphemism for the hot season when the women sit quietly in their upper room and try to stay cool.
The events of the story and what happens to these two women is truly heartbreaking. For some reason though, the writing did not affect me emotionally, except for the footbinding stuff. My feelings about the book are mixed as a result. The writing is good, in fact very professional, but I should have cried over this tale and never once shed a tear.