Bookmarks Issue: 
Lisa See

A-BorgesOrangutansIn 1903, Lily Yi, the 80-year-old matriarch of Tongkou village, finally earns the freedom to recount her life story. "I can finally say things I couldn’t," she narrates. "I have a whole life to tell; I have nothing left to lose and few to offend."

The privilege to tell her story—which will be burned at her death—comes after decades of living a life subject to rigid codes of conduct in the sequestered "women’s quarters" of a prominent Chinese household. Born to an ordinary farmer in 1828 in a remote village in southwestern Imperial China, Lily was a "third child, a second worthless girl" in a culture that revered boys. Lily’s fate changed at age six, when a matchmaker spied her high-arched feet. If bound, her esteemed lotus bud-shaped feet could elevate her family’s social status and fetch a husband from a great landowning family. Lily’s precious feet, besides earning her a husband, also provide her with a second formal match, a laotong relationship ("old sames," or arranged bosom friend), with Snow Flower, a stubborn, beautiful girl from a prestigious family in decline. Writing in nu shu, an ancient secret phonetic script between women, the two lonely girls pass messages back and forth via a fan over the years. Finding solace in their deep love for each other, they share the intimate details of their lives: their secluded house training, arranged marriages, desire for sons, childbirths, and family joys and tragedies. But a misunderstanding—a misreading of the nu shu—threatens to destroy their strong bond and alter others’ lives as well.
Random House. 258 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 1400060281

Critical Themes

The symbolic fan: The titular secret fan plays a crucial role in the plot and as a symbol. It not only guides Lily as she records her story, but it also serves as a reminder of her intimate friendship with Snow Flower. Critics agree with the San Diego Union-Tribune that the fan provides "a stunning setup for describing a culture inside a story, and Lisa See takes full advantage of it." The Los Angeles Times notes that See’s story unfolds slowly and gracefully, "changing like the Chinese characters on the shared fan that Snow Flower and Lily decorate with their delicate calligraphy and exchange back and forth across the passing years."

Ties that bind: Snow Flower offers different metaphors of binding. The cruel practice of foot binding, for example, killed one in 10 girls across China and maimed many others. Broken, bound, and reshaped so the toes met the heel, these "golden lilies"—valuable fetish objects—could buy a girl a better life. Critics agree that See describes foot binding in "unflinching detail" (Chicago Tribune). The laotong, the friendship forged for "eternal fidelity," binds Snow Flower and Lily together through the rise and fall of their fortunes and lives and allows them to understand their struggles for self-worth.

Guilty pleasures: Stifled by 19th-century Chinese customs and gender restrictions, Snow Flower and Lily try to find happiness in their sequestered female sphere. Nu shu allows them to share their daily lives; it also offers small liberations and forbidden pleasures. In this way, nu shu constituted an "invisible rebellion that no man [could] see." But the language, largely dependent on context for meaning, could backfire just as easily as it could liberate. In Snow Flower, the "nuance and shading in a single line [of nu shu] turns the entire story on its axis" (Los Angeles Times).

Baltimore Sun 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This haunting, beautiful, and ineffably sad tale of longing so intense as to be taken beyond the grave, is written in See’s characteristically strong prose. … It is an extraordinary novel, simply breathtaking." Victoria A. Brownworth

Philadelphia Inquirer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s hard to imagine that someone could write a better novel. ... With Snow Flower, See has written a novel that ranks with the best fiction of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, the modern luminaries of Chinese storytelling."
Karen R. Long

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"[You can] savor See’s marvelous narrative as a timeless portrait of a contentious, full-blooded female friendship, one that includes, over several decades, envy, betrayal, erotic love, and deep-seated loyalty."
Jennifer Reese

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[See] has pulled off a deceptive balancing act here. … [Her] translucent prose style gleams with the beauty of 19th century Chinese culture but also makes us burn with indignation at its sexist ugliness and injustice."
Marc Weingarten

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Some writers blaze onto the scene with a dazzling first book. Others build their writing career brick by brick—or ‘bird by bird,’ as Annie Lamott put it so brightly in her best-selling book. … [A] beautifully drawn portrait of female friendship and power." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is so rich in psychology, feminine high stakes and marital intrigue that it evokes the work of Jane Austen. … It moved me to tears of recognition." Karen R. Long

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"On every page, she provides fascinating details of the lives of women in China. … All her books probe themes like archaeological theft, the smuggling of undocumented immigrants, sweatshop labor." Julie Brickman

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The wonder of this book is that it takes readers to a place at once foreign and familiar—foreign because of its time and setting, yet familiar because this landscape of love and sorrow is inhabited by us all. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a triumph on every level, a beautiful, heartbreaking story."
Judy Fong Bates

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… for all that she learns from the refined Snow Flower, Lily fails to spot some basic human weaknesses, or to recognize them for what they are. People can communicate, she learns, but they can also deceive." CLEA SIMON

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… See does not have the poetic sensibility of a writer like Maxine Hong Kingston. She also lacks the ear for language of Amy Tan. … But [her] intriguing and well-researched account of nu shu and the role it played in the lives of Chinese women is immensely interesting, from a historical perspective and from the perspective of the individual womens’ lives See imagines in her novel." Laura Ciolkowski

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"See’s fluid language, her re-creation of Lily and Snow Flower’s world, is engaging. There’s plenty of action in this book … but some plot twists are undernourished and contrived. See ably illuminates the roots of Lily and Snow Flower’s heartbreaking passivity, allowing us to identify with them enough to recognize the meaning of their lives despite the cultural restrictions of their time." Sara Peyton

Critical Summary

Snow Flower, by the author of three crime thrillers set in Communist China and the bestselling memoir On Gold Mountain (1995), explores women’s insular lives in 19th-century rural China. The novel is many things at once: a portrait of a patriarchal culture that valued sons and banished girls to a lesser sphere; an exploration of friendship in all its ups and downs, jealousies, loyalties, and betrayals; and a comment on the spiritual meaning (or emptiness) of tradition, ritual, and ceremony.

Critics heap praise on See’s latest effort. Her blend of fiction and history—a "deft weave of fact and fiction [that] stands out as her signature strength"—invites readers into a world both strange and strangely familiar (San Diego Union-Tribune). See’s impeccable research offers detailed insight into different aspects of Chinese culture that are new to most readers: the gut-wrenching practice of foot binding, the magical world of nu shu, the isolated and lonely world of wives and mothers, who spent nearly their entire lives in seclusion. At the same time, we’re able to identify with the characters—Snow Flower and Lily’s intimate relationship and their struggle to find meaning in life despite the harsh confines of their existence. See’s prose, if not as poetic as other contemporary Chinese-American authors, still has strength and grace. Action (such as the Taiping rebellion) peppers the narrative, yet some subplots seem manufactured. This is a minor quibble, however; Snow Flower is a literary triumph. "By bringing the secret world of these Chinese women into vivid relief," notes the Los Angeles Times, "See has conjured up an alien world that is the better for being lost."