Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

Whenever I look back on the books I’ve read and reviewed on this blog, they remind me of certain times in my life. I remember barreling through Coraline while on a plane home from Germany, soon after the Brussels bombings. Geek Love was one of the first books I read after having moved out from my parents’ house, and its depiction of a dysfunctional family made me belatedly grateful for my own. But what I love most about these reminiscences is the instantaneousness of the memory.

As I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, there wasn’t anything too significant happening in my personal life. Everything was business as usual. However, worldwide, people were taking a stand. Making their voices heard about women’s rights. I didn’t participate in any protests, but the sense of community – a community of women and their allies – was palpable and warmly refreshing. As I read about the various protests that happened globally, I couldn’t help but relate it back to this book.

At its core, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a novel about women and their relationships. It’s also a piece of historical fiction, which is one of my favorite genres. While being familiar with the basic concepts in this novel like Confucian views and bound feet, I still learned a lot about China in the nineteenth century. Of course, as with all historical fiction, I took the actual events and chronology with a grain of salt, but I inhaled the words, the foods, and the general culture of the novel. The voice of the narrator, Lily, is genuine and engaging, without being too stereotypical and forced.

What I loved especially about the book was the variety of relationships between women it depicted: familial, friendship, rivalry, and romantic. There are fewer male characters, and due to the nature of Lily’s family, the novel never explores a male character as in-depth as any of the female characters. However, the way that Lily and Snow Flower choose (or are forced to) interact with the male characters is equally thought-provoking as the interactions between female characters.

Also, although in general Lily was portrayed as conservative and Snow Flower more adventurous, I appreciated that neither of them were entirely one way or the other – they both were realistic in that they made different decisions based on the current circumstances. In general, I found all the characters realistic and relatable. I loved that not all of the adult figures in Lily’s childhood were reduced to the stereotype of the strict Asian parent: while Lily’s mother is more stoic, her aunt provides Lily with a more nurturing, humorous maternal figure.

The only problem I had with the novel is that the summary I read led me to believe that the novel would focus more on nushu, a form of writing used only by women in the area of China where the novel takes place. Nushu is used as a plot device by allowing women in different households to communicate, particularly by the titular secret fan, but it never prominently figured as a plot point itself. It’s not terribly important, but I would have loved to learn more about nushu – perhaps if the novel took place during its development.

YES OR NO?: YESSnow Flower and the Secret Fan‘s engaging prose, realistic story, and fleshed out characters kept me curious – not only about the plot but also about the historical background of the novel. Its exploration of women, their relationships, and their shifting place in the society at the time is easily relatable and thought-provoking for any reader today.

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What I read in 2016, and what I hope to read in 2017

Another year, another year-end post! Or year-start post, I guess, with my late timing…but in the midst of various celebrations (including wading into the ice-cold Pacific on New Year’s Day), I couldn’t find time to sit down and hammer out this post until tonight. All in all, 2016 was an eventful year. I worked, moved out of my parents’ house (although they thankfully still keep my fridge well-stocked), traveled, and, of course, found time to read.

In my wrap-up post for 2015, I mentioned that I’d like to read more works by female authors. Well, I’m happy to see that I did just that! 15 out of my 35 books were written by women. Still not quite halfway, but an improvement over last year. I also read five more books than last year, so all in all I’m quite pleased with the reading I accomplished this year. Below are listed all the books I read:

  1. AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Modern RomanceAziz Ansari
  3. The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
  4. Wild SeedOctavia Butler
  5. Ready Player OneErnest Cline
  6. All Families Are PsychoticDouglas Coupland
  7. Hey NostradamusDouglas Coupland
  8. The Red TentAnita Diamant
  9. Geek LoveKatherine Dunn
  10. Tender Is the NightF. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. CoralineNeil Gaiman
  12. Carol, Patricia Highsmith
  13. The Remains of the DayKazuo Ishiguro
  14. Black Flower, Young-Ha Kim
  15. Christine, Stephen King
  16. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  17. China Rich GirlfriendKevin Kwan
  18. Crazy Rich AsiansKevin Kwan
  19. The NamesakeJhumpa Lahiri
  20. The Journalist and the MurdererJanet Malcolm
  21. Dance Dance DanceHaruki Murakami
  22. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHaruki Murakami
  23. Kafka on the ShoreHaruki Murakami
  24. South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami
  25. A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki
  26. DamnedChuck Palahniuk
  27. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152David Petersen
  28. PushSapphire
  29. Child 44Tom Rob Smith
  30. On BeautyZadie Smith
  31. The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck
  32. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  33. The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
  34. The Accidental TouristAnne Tyler
  35. Tipping the VelvetSarah Waters

Out of the books above, it’s hard to designate a single favorite. I would have to make it a tie between The Remains of the Day, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Kafka on the Shore. Stereotypical choices, I know, but these books lived up to their lofty reputations. On a related note, I’m sad that I now only have two more Murakami novels to read – although there’s supposedly a new one coming this year, so I’ll definitely have something to look forward to.

This year, I found myself visiting the library once again, although I still relied on my Kindle, especially when traveling. I found discovering new books and authors much easier at the library than on Amazon or whatnot: I simply could reach forward and grab a book when I found its title or spine intriguing. When browsing online, I find I’m too preoccupied with whether I’ve heard of the author, what the reviews of the book are like, and so on. More discerning and less organic. While my list from this year is peppered with new authors, there are still many authors whose works I’d already read before. My goal next year is to read more works by authors I haven’t yet experienced – to have at least 50% of my reading be by new authors, and of course, to read more books than I did the previous year. January is always an ambitious time for goal-setting, though, so let’s see if I stick with it.

Happy New Year, and hope your 2017 is filled with lots of reading!