Lisa See •
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan •
Lisa See’s books leave me breathless with their power and scope. I’ve read three of her novels and loved every one, but it was Snow Flower with its rich historical detail that first mesmerized me.
The story follows the fortunes of two girls born on the same day who become laotong, or lifelong best friends. “We are like a pair of Mandarin ducks,” Snow Flower and Lily repeat to each other over the years, invoking the traditional symbol for harmony and oneness. Instead of learning written Chinese, considered the province of males, they become literate in nu shu, a thousand-year-old language devised by women to communicate with one another in secret. When their respective marriages separate the pair, they send messages back and forth in the folds of a fan.
At a time when women in China had no control over their lives, these two find support and comfort in their connection, until it is irrevocably ruptured. Lily, heartbroken, attempts a spirit reconciliation by writing the story of their friendship after Snow Flower’s death.
See does an exceptional job of presenting not only the physical realities of existence in 19th-century China but also the underlying attitudes and beliefs. Women subjugate their lives to fathers and husbands. Bound feet, euphemistically called golden lilies, are a source of both pain and pride. Matchmakers hold the power to determine one’s fate.
See is the older daughter of Carolyn See, a highly acclaimed author who was early to recognize the cultural significance in this saga of two women whose lives are so entwined that they call each other Old Same.