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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #34 (August 23, 2005), page 15.
Two Chinese friends share a secret code for women only
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See
Random House, 2005
Hardcover, 258 pages, $21.95
By Dave Johnson
At a recent reading and signing of her new book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, novelist and memoirist Lisa See exclaimed that the size of the Portland crowd was awesome. "In Vermont, I had a reading with two folks in attendance."
It was the Green Mountain State’s loss. See’s lively, informative discussion of the themes and sources of her novel was full of captivating historical details of a woman’s life in early 19th-century China. Her reading from the text was an enchanting passage back in time to Hunan County, a farming village in the outback of a vast nation. Here we meet Lily, an 80-year-old woman described by villagers as "one who has not yet died."
Although cared for with love and fond attention, Lily is no longer interested in the present. Her husband is dead and there is no reason not to talk about all the regrets, lost loves, and mistakes. So that is what she does in this exquisite novel in the guise of a poignant memoir.
Born in 1823 to what now would be called a middle-class family, Lily ran free until the age of seven when her feet were bound to ensure a good marriage. With excruciating detail, See describes the agony and bravery of young girls who suffered the barbarous custom that continued in China until the early 1950s. Essentially, the girls’ feet were wrapped tight until the bones broke and could be folded together, leaving the sufferer to walk on her big toes.
Lily’s life takes a remarkable upsweep when she meets her laotong (old same). Arranged by Madame Wang, a matchmaker and local busybody, a special friendship between Lily and Snow Flower begins. They are of the same age, attributes, and sensibilities and soon become fascinated with each other. After signing a life-long contract, Snow Flower tutors Lily in the domestic arts of cooking, calligraphy, and weaving. But most importantly Snow Flower teaches Lily how to write nu shu, a secret code written in spidery characters, understood only by other women.
Created a thousand years ago in a remote area of Hunan Province, nu shu is thought to be the only written language originated by women for their use between one another. Lily’s first message in nu shu is a secret note from Snow Flower written on the fold of a fan given as a gift.
As this fan travels back and forth between devoted friends, traditional, lyrical, and tender messages are added to decorate it. As the years go by, Lily and Snow Flower spend their days in the upper chambers, serving tea to elders and seldom going out into the hubbub of village life. Husbands are chosen, bed business is initiated, vicious mothers-in-law appear to assert cruel yet proper domination, and children arrive to live or quickly die. All the while, through the delicate delights and brutal vicissitudes of life, the two friends continue to nurture a special affection for each other that transcends the rigid codes of their surroundings.
Until a misunderstanding changes everything. To go into details about this misinterpretation would be to reveal the startling and dismaying events that damage the friendship and still have a lingering, bitter taste many years later as death draws near.
As a reviewer and ardent fan of both See’s personal history of the settling of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and her three detective thrillers set in China, I was curious to see how the author applied her talented pen to a divergent plotline and certainly a more traditional protagonist. Not to worry, Lisa See aficionados. She glows as brightly as ever in this lyrically rendered, heartbreaking tale of two women whose friendship is set against the rigid conventions of the Land of Dragons.
Lisa See was the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for thirteen years, worked for many years as a freelance journalist, and wrote the libretto for a Los Angeles opera derived from On Gold Mountain. She has also designed a walking tour of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and was named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese Women. She lives in Los Angeles.