“We are expected to love our husbands from the day of contracting a kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step above a servant. We love our parents because they take care of us, but are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We are raised by one family for another.”
In sixth grade, we were taken for a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. They were having a historical exhibit at the time (they even had Egyptian mummies – I honestly don’t know/can’t remember if they were real or just dummies, but I wanna believe they were real, so please don’t take this away from me). Among other things, I remember a painting quite vividly. It was a painting of Chinese women with their feet bound. It was a strange painting though, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. In the painting, the women had their legs (legs, not feet) tied up like they were rope! These women had knots where there ankles should have been.We were told they did this so their feet never grew beyond a certain size and this intrigued me. Or, more accurately, I should say, this bothered me. Which is why I remember the painting to this date.
But the funny thing is, I can’t remember how Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ended up on my TBR list. It’s just been there since, forever! The book presents the true picture of foot binding – so unlike the painting I saw, but all the more brutal. The feet are bound in cloth, and the kids (yes, they do it to little girls) are forced to walk with their toes underneath them so that the bones break and… do you want me to go on? Why did they do it? To enter into “good marriages.” What did marriages have to do with breaking the bones in little girls’ feet? Read this for a brief summary. Warning: May piss you off.
Anyway, back to Lisa See’s book.
Genre: Historical, Cultural
Summary: In 19th century China, when women were treated like dirt, the protagonist Lily finds a “laotong“, Snow Flower. A laotong relationship is a lifelong friendship between two women, and is considered more sacred than that between a husband and wife. Lily and Snow Flower communicate using the secret Nu shu script used by Chinese women. They even have their feet bound at the same time, are born in the same year (the year of the horse) and are matched on almost all points, except social standing. At first, Lily believes herself unworthy of Snow Flower, because the former belongs to a family of farmers, whereas the latter’s family is quite well off. The story is narrated by Lily as an old woman, and she begins the tale by implying something went terribly wrong with their friendship. It’s all very tragic.
Good: Had this been a work of non-fiction, it would have been worth devouring! The detail, right to the smallest dot, is fantastic. A lot of research has gone into this book. So fascinating – the secret script, the folk tales and songs, the culture and customs, even the horrid-sounding foot-binding.
Bad: When the narrator tells you something bad is gonna happen, as a reader, you would get this sense of foreboding. That was absent in this case. I knew something was gonna wrong, but it made me go, “Oh yeah? So?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. You reach the 40% mark before the story actually begins. So you tend to wonder what were you doing up until this point. It’s really slow, and I didn’t expect to finish it for another two days. I did, somehow. I don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment or anything. I just feel like taking a break from books! Happens, when a narrator is particularly drony.
Ugly: Look at that quote I’ve shared in the beginning. Almost every page has at least one paragraph that tells you women are worthless. I mean, okay, I get it, it was the “system” or whatever. But this is a work of fiction! You can turn your heroine around, you know! Make her question the “system”! There’s another popular work of historical fiction, also set in the nineteenth century, but in a different part of the world – Gone With The Wind. The heroine of that book was Scarlett O’Hara and believe me, if she were the heroine of this one, this would be a completely different book, a mindblowing one. She didn’t take the system lying down, I don’t know why Lily did. Or Snow Flower, for that matter. Snow Flower was built up as a strong character, one just waiting to fly off. But she didn’t. Not only that, Lily’s voice almost sounded like she wanted to be treated like crap. Like, all women should be grateful for being treated like crap. It was terrible. The sheer repetition of the words, “We are women. This is our fate.” will make you wanna put a bullet through your mouth. Or six.
I know this book has a high rating on Goodreads and seems to be wildly popular (though I still can’t remember how it ended up on my TBR!) So I may be entirely wrong here in my interpretation. But I can’t overlook the fact that this was so slow, so cliched, so boring, so irritating. Again – it should have been non-fiction. My rating is a reflection of that alone – the research and the depiction of history.