Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #79: Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
A beautiful and poignant tale of female friendship in 19th century China. Lily is from a relatively poor family and Snowflower is from a well-off family, but the two girls are paired as “laotong,” or soul sisters, at the age of seven, when their astrological symbols and successful foot-binding brings them to the attention of a matchmaker who will oversee them through to their future marriages. Laotong are not just “best friends” in the traditional Western sense of the term, but paired in a way that surpasses marriage. And, in view of the terrible isolation imposed on young women at the time—matched early and forced to live in their husband’s home as virtual servants under the often brutal dominion of the mother-in-law—lifelong laotong relationships provide an emotional bond that keeps these women’s spirits alive.
From childhood, the two girls keep up their friendship with visits, and when these are not possible, through poems and stories penned onto the folds of a shared fan that gets sent back and forth between them. The poems and stories are written in a secret language known only to laotong. Their fortunes are soon reversed: Snowflower’s father becomes an opium addict and ends up losing his money and matching his daughter to a butcher, considered the lowest of the low at the time. Nonetheless, she manages to adapt to her new circumstances, and eventually fall in love with her husband and produce a number of strapping sons. Lily is matched to a young, handsome, wealthy but traditional husband who provides Lily with a nice home, servants and children, but no real love. The two women go through many trials and their relationship sustains them until Lily’s selfishness and Snowflower’s passivity leads to a crisis, and their bond is shattered.
The novel is written as a first-person memoir on the part of an aged and regretful Lily, but one quickly forgets that context as the tale itself enthralls. The author has a deep understanding not only of Chinese culture and tradition, but of the tides of love, jealousy, resentment, sorrow, and reconciliation that can flow between sisters, and makes this novel especially affecting for women readers.