Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Asian Literature ; (258pgs)
Random House Publishing
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart. (GoodReads)
First of all, I tried really hard to come up with a more creative title than the one I found on the NYTimes page, "Ties That Bind: Life-Sustaining Friendships Transcending Life's Brutalities," but unfortunately I couldn't. In fact, that is the gist of the book, perfectly selected title to exemplify what the book is about. Of course, this review on the NYTimes page is about the movie, and not the book. Nevertheless, it is the same story. The 'ties that bind' are many and great, that's what I want to bring to surface about this book.
To survive the sad, unjust, and tragic fates of their lives, Lily and Snow Flower become connected through a written language called nu shu. It is the "secret - code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan Province developed a thousand years ago. It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use." Through their bond they are able to overcome all else. The power of endurance, love, and sisterhood elevates them to transcend above and beyond their ordinary lives. And to further acknowledge the power of these women, their modesty, especially that of Lily's when she says she has yet to learn so much more of love, only tells of their passion to keep growing and transcending as human beings.
-nu shu writing on fan-
This is yet another book, and I'm not surprised, that will leave your heart marked for like, much like Murakami's Norwegian Wood did for me. This book goes through a lot of emotions, and most of the time I was reading it, it felt really tragic. I have encountered the cultural tradition of foot-binding in one of my Anthropology courses. This book, I hoped, would take me on a more personal note of the tradition. Unfortunately, one of the biggest emotions that comes with reading this book is 'sadness,' and lot of it, as a result. But also, just like Murakami's Norwegian Wood, it left me hopeful and enthralled that love can overcome all pain and suffering. We must value love, for it is the pillar of our strength. Here's what Lily says to us about it:
"I am still learning about love. I thought I understood it - not just mother love but the love for one's parents, for one's husband, and for one's laotong. I've experienced the other types of love - pity love, respectful love, and gratitude love. But looking at our secret fan with its messages written between Snow Flower and me over many years, I see that I didn't value the most important love - deep-heart love."
Lily is eighty years old when she begins the accounts of her past life with Snow Flower. Her life has endured many decades of hardship, suffering, sadness, and misery. Lily and Snow Flower have an existence of oppression warranting them to endure all their hardships in a graceful fashion. They accomplish that through the creation of their bond and, and also through their passion for art and the secret language of nu shu.
Both Lily and Snow Flower live in a world of arranged marriages. As a result, they are not associate with a man until they are officially married and sent off to live with the chosen man. Meanwhile, at the age of seven they are committed to a sisterhood by way of a chosen 'laotong.' These pairings in turn build a world of friendships that, like in the case of Lily and Snow Flower, lasted a whole lifetime. Moreover, the bond sometimes carry on to be stronger than anything else, even stronger than the one they could have with their husbands.
Lily, by way of looking at her secret fan decades later, tries to retrace the life she spent with Snow Flower, the wisdoms through the times, recount on the survival of the heart and spirit, and just as in Norwegian Wood accounting for all the greatness life has to offer amongst some of our most challenging moments in life.