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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