Book Review – ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ by Lisa See

Rating: 5/5 stars (and then some!)

Lily is haunted by memories-of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.
In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu (“women’s writing”). Some girls were paired with laotongs, “old sames,” in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.

With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become “old sames” at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.


A few years ago Aimee told me to read this book, having read the first few chapters herself and really enjoyed it. She took it out of the library at this time to finish it and I took out another of Lisa See’s books ‘Peony in Love’. As soon as I finished ‘Peony in Love’ I went out and bought ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ but the book remained on my shelf, unread for a long time.

I suppose the reason I wasn’t driven to dive straight into ‘Snow Flower’, was the same thing that I have seen people complain about with regard to Lisa See, her writing style. These are not heavily plot driven books. Their story simply exists and is beautiful in the telling but without the suspense and drive that we are used to from other books. Personally, I think it is this style that makes both ‘Peony in Love’ and ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ so exquisite. No, you might not feel compelled to pick up the book at once because the ending is not the important thing, it’s the getting there that is the focus.
To say that there is no driving plot is not to say that nothing happens because a lot does happen. There are dramatic moments, times of extreme emotion, all told with the most excruciating poignancy. There are happy times and times of pain as there are in life. This novel is, after all, the story of one woman’s life.
Something else I have heard people say about ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ is that the female characters, the main characters, are annoying, frustrating, weak and therefore the readers come up with a million complaints. I do disagree with this. The female characters are women in a society where women have very set roles. They are strong within these roles and they strive to change their lives, and live their lives happily, within the boundaries that are set. To do your duty while keeping sight of who you are, in my opinion, makes you stronger than those who can simply live as they like and do as they please. I therefore have no problems with the characterisation.
One of the most interesting, and I use that word loosely, sections for me was the section describing the process of foot binding. This was the only point at which I wished that Lisa See’s writing was worse. The vivid combination of physical description, descriptions of physical and emotional pain, and the overriding sense of necessity was too much for me and I found myself actually feeling a bit queasy at this point. However, this powerful section is also probably one of the most important sections of the novel too as within the events and emotions of the foot binding one learns the personalities of the characters as well as the morality and aims they will have throughout their life.
Overall, I think this is one of the best books I have ever read. It’s brutal. It’s sad. I was in floods of tears at the end. There is, however, a beauty, and a hope, and a longing, that also runs through this novel. It’s quite simply stunning.

To buy a physical copy of this novel on amazon click here. I can’t find a kindle version so I don’t think it’s been converted.


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