Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Audio Book)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010



In nineteenth-century China, six-year old Lily is just beginning the rituals towards becoming a woman. As per custom, her foot is to be bound and her marriage fixed in a few years, even though it will be much later before she starts staying with her to-be-husband. Even before she begins her initiation, her fate and that of her aunt's daughter, Beautiful Moon, are beginning to get intertwined with that of a girl named Snow Flower.

I listened to this book a couple of months back, and my review comes really late. So while I probably forgot a few points, there is so much about this book that is still with me. For starters, I am not an audiobook fan, but I'm beginning to understand that it's more due to unengaging narrators than the audio book itself. Janet Song, the narrator of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, does an impressive job in evoking the character emotions and conveying the tragedies and happiness.

Girls in China had their feet bound at six years of age. I had previously read only one book which involved foot binding, and even then I assumed it was a harmless custom. Harmless! Girls could die from foot binding, and that was a really shocking piece of news for me. Everything I needed to know about this custom came from the second chapter of this book. Lisa See (and Janet Song, through her narration) captures the dangers of this custom very well - the pain, the cracks heard as the bones broke, the compulsory walks across the room on bound feet, the regular removal of the bindings only to put on a clean set even more tightly - all to bend the feet completely, so that the person appears to walk on tip-toes. Imagine your feet and your pointed heels as one object - that's how a bound feet would look like. I have never been more appreciative of the feet I have, in fact, I have almost sworn-off pointed heels because of what they'll remind me. And if the bindings aren't done properly? You can get gangrene or blood poisoning. The ideal size is apparently 7 inches (if my memory serves me right). 7 inches is not even a foot.

Most of this book focuses on the "friendship" between Lily and Snow Flower. I use friendship for want of a better word. Because, what exists between the two is a relationship closer than that between friends, sisters or a married couple. In China, it is called laotong, which is signed in contract - just like arranged marriages. Snow Flower is from an ostensibly richer town and a richer house. Lily is financially at a lower strata. While Lily's mother is only interested in the monetary benefits, the real situation is a lot more complicated. Having been brought up in the ways of the rich, Snow Flower has a very sophisticated manner of doing anything. Her education is more solid and her mannerisms more lady-like.

I wish I could go on about this book, but apart from the first couple chapters, the rest constitute spoilers. There is so much that happens in this book. The women are understood to have no say in a lot of matters, with men dictating all the rules, and yet it is obvious that the women have more power than Lily admits. Most of this story is from the perspective of women, and for all I know, the men hardly exist other than as props. It is interesting how much a woman can do even within a limited or non-existent freedom. As a daughter-in-law, the pressures on one are really great, but as a mother of sons, she has more status.

As was the norm in many countries in the nineteenth century (and still is in most places), sons are most coveted, while daughters are considered worthless. I cringed so many times through the book whenever the sentiment was expressed. Lily, herself, was not without fault. You would expect that one who goes through so many hardships as her, would at least try to unburden her daughter. But this is like the snake that bit its own tail - a cycle that never ceases. I both hated and loved Lily as the narrator. Lisa See was taking a risk by making her the narrator. Lily was clearly no ideal woman. She passed on her burdens to her daughter, glorified her son (in fact, she talks a LOT of her son). She is selfish and arrogant, and she begins to doubt her own friend, Snow Flower.

I was, however, annoyed by how much tragedy seems to befall people around Lily, while Lily just keeps getting luckier. I know that's not coincidental but circumstantial, nevertheless all that tragedy was just wearing me out. Every once in while, I wondered if I could just get through a part without having to sniff a bit. Other than the overdose of tears, I found this book really wonderful. I will especially recommend the audio book over the print.

  

Check out this book published by Random House @ Goodreads, BetterWorldBooks, Amazon, B&N.

I borrowed this audio book from the library. This book also completes my Women Unbound challenge.

7 comments:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I'm going to admit my experience -- I full on bawled my eyes out with this book. I closed my home office door so my husband couldn't hear me, and I hyperventilated and bawled. I'm not a big fan of audio books, and I really enjoyed the printed pages. I read Peony in Love after this, and I really liked it, but Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is my favorite. I do agree that Lilly was one lucky lady, though -- and part of my overall experience of crying for everyone else, too!

bermudaonion said...

Reading your description of bound feet sent a shiver through me. I won this a while ago and need to read it - I have a feeling I'll love it.

IntrovertedJen said...

The foot binding just killed me! *shivers* What a horrible custom! Did you look it up on Wikipedia? There are pictures on there if you can stomach them. I want to say they were even smaller than seven inches. Thumb length? That sounds crazy, but that's really what I think, rightly or wrongly.

That's pretty much the biggest thing I remember from this book. Once you mentioned it, I'm pretty sure I had problems with Lily too and felt bad for poor Snow Flower.

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This is an all-time favorite of mine. I had the print version, and loved it. Glad u liked it too.

Helen's Book Blog said...

I'll admit I only skimmed your review since I didn't want to read anything I shouldn't (remember, I am on about page 100 of this book right now). I am so glad you liked it though. I am not loving it yet, but am getting into it more and am really liking it.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Great review!

Aths said...

Coffee and Book Chick, I remember crying so much too! I mainly listened to this while commuting, and I had to make sure that I was not a spectacle!

Kathy, I'm sure you will love it! I can't wait to hear what you think!

Jen, the pictures made me want to vomit. I still can't understand what people found appealing about them. They look DISGUSTING!

Diane, I'm glad to hear you loved this!

Helen, having read your review, I have to say we both have similar tastes!

Juju, thanks!