Perhaps it is a joke that only girls and women can understand. We are seen as completely useless. Even if our natal families love us, we are a burden to them. We marry into new families, go to our husbands sight unseen, do bed business with them as total strangers, and submit to the demands of our mothers-in-law. If we are lucky, we have sons and secure our positions in our husbands’ homes. If not, we are faced with the scorn of our mothers-in-law, the ridicule of our husbands’ concubines, and the disappointed faces of our daughters. We use a woman’s wiles — of which at seventeen we girls know almost nothing — but beyond this there is little we can do to change our fate. We live at the whim and pleasure of others…
This quote is the crux of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. It’s a book by women, about women’s lives, women’s pains, women’s loves, and women’s heartaches. I’ve been thinking about this book ever since I finished it, and yet I’m having a difficult time figuring out what to write. It’s heart-rendering, it’s challenging, it’s painful, it’s hopeful. It’s a lot like life.
The book takes place in rural China, where the culture is not kind to women. Lily is a Second Daughter, a position in life that’s really not good at all. Yet, when it comes time for her feet to be bound (in the few chapters that were the most difficult for me to get through; I almost gave up the book on chapter 5, it was so painful to read), her life takes a different direction. She ends up with perfect, 7 centimeter “golden lilies” for feet, a laotong (an “old same”) and prospects for a better life than what her parents have. It’s the relationship with her laotong, Snow Flower, though, that makes up the plot of the novel. How they go from innocent 7 year olds, with much in common; to young marrieds, with less in common; to middle age women facing the hardships of life.
It’s a book about survival: of women in a male-dominated world; of the nu shu writing — the women’s language; of friendship against all odds. It’s also a story about regret and heartache. It’s not a happy one; I had to go check out a book of humorous essays just to get me through the book. I needed something to balance out the depressing lives Lily and Snow Flower led.
All that said, I’m not sorry I read this book. It’s enlightening — I can’t believe people survived in situations like this, yet they did. Lily and Snow Flower were not only admirable in the fact that they survived, but that they tried to make a better life for themselves. And in the end, that’s the best I could hope for from this book.