17. Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
I’d been interested in reading Snowflower and the Secret Fan for quite some time, and heard Lisa See speak about one of her newer books at the most recent National Book Festival. So, finally, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during my commute (curiously, all the audiobooks I’ve successfully finished have been set in another country, primarily the UK and China, though I just finished one set in Spain).
Lily and Snowflower are two young girls growing up in Jiangyong Province in the late 19th century. Like her mother and sister before her, Lily knows that she will have her feet bound at the age of six, join a group of sworn sisters at nine, become betrothed in her teens, marry at 17, and move definitively into her in-laws' home when she is ready to give birth to her first child, leaving her natal family and local friendships behind. But the matchmaker comes with a special offer for Lily: to become a laotong, one of two sworn friends for life, who will communicate through nushu, the secret written language of women. The laotong relationship between Lily and Snowflower changes the course of both girls' lives.
From what I can tell, most of the traditions and depictions of women's lives portrayed in this book are historically accurate. Jiangyong Province apparently had a very unique and thriving feminine sub-culture, even proscribed as it was within Confucian tradition. The horrific foot-binding practice is well-known, and illustrated with gut-wrenching precision in See's unflinching prose. However, the discussion of nushu, while I'd heard of it before, seems to be limited to scholarly texts--I'm unaware of any other work of fiction that addresses it, much less the intricacies of laotong and sworn sister relationships. The latter practices are also discussed in some obscure academic texts, but not widely known or studied, as far as I'm aware. Thus, the detail with which See explains these practices is a treat, and the culture comes to life in her hands. See takes an essentially defunct society and re-creates a realistic "structure of feeling," and that is no small feat.
While the atmosphere and relationships are believable, the novel suffers from a severe plot problem, and a series of misleading signals. From the prologue, we know that the story is told in retrospect, from the view of Lily as a very old woman. Therefore, she can be expected to know the fate of all of the other characters (her extreme age and the era would suggest, if not demand, that all the other characters predecease her). Cue the misleading signals. For example, early on in the book, Lily describes what a group of her female relatives will look like when they are old. Lo and behold, each of those relatives dies a young and tragic death. Huh? The way it was described is just extremely misleading. And then there's the climax, which is built up to from literally the first line of the book.
This climax is constantly obliquely referred to throughout the novel, and there's even an earlier incident, which also doesn't quite ring true, that is said to be a poor shadow of what is coming in the climax. Well...first of all, it takes a REALLY long time to get to the climax, like more than three quarters of the book is over by the time it's reached, and there's not nearly enough time to recover afterward. Second of all, the climax, after all of this build up for the ENTIRE novel...is hugely anticlimactic. The hints make it unsurprising, but it still doesn't quite seem to fit with the characters that are so beautifully built over the course of the novel. It's tragicomic, but also just nonsensical, when what really happened is revealed. The plot point does revolve intimately around the nushu and laotong concepts at least, so in that way, it is appropriate, it just...well, didn't ring true to me, like I said. Perhaps I had trouble identifying with the shift in character, but anyway, I do think the way it was structured was flawed.
There's a lot of emotional depth to this novel, which thoughtfully portrays a sub-culture built around women who are systemically victimized. See really "gets" this aspect of the characters, and her portrayal of their relationships with each other and with men, including abusive and best-case scenario relationships, are insightful. I wish she had just focused on delving into their lives and not even tried to impose extra narrative drama.
Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and Chinese women's history in particular.