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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (See)

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 
Lisa See, 2005
Random House
269 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812968064


Summary 
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 18, 1955
Where—Paris, France
Education—B.A., Loyola Marymount University
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California


Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Shanghai Girls; Peony in Love; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee); The Interior; and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. (From the publisher.)

More
At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots.

I knew three things. I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off —‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer.

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored accolades while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera.

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover. (From the author's website.)

Extras
• I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco.

When asked about what book influenced her as a writer, here is her response:

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I read this novel just before I started writing On Gold Mountain. I loved the way Stegner combined family story with history. I know that this book has come under severe criticism in recent years for possible plagiarism. Nevertheless, it inspired and continues to inspire me. (Bio and interview from a 2005 Barnes and Noble interview.)



Book Reviews 
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is written with a stately but unremarkable prettiness; it is not a book that will make its mark for reasons of style. But Ms. See has worked enough joy, pain and dramatic weepiness ("Oh, how I wanted to dip a cloth into that water and wipe away the cares that played across my laotong's features") to give it a quiet staying power. It's liable to be read by women's groups and valued for its quaintness. ("All people cherish the hair on their moles, but Uncle Lu's were splendid.") But what will work best for this book is its own secret message: cultures vary, but old sames and same-olds don't change.
Janet Maslin - The New York Times


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 - The Washington Post


See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well.
Publishers Weekly


Foot binding; nu shu, a secret language used exclusively by the women of Hunan Province for 1000 years; and laotong, the arranged friendship between little girls meant to last a lifetime, provide the framework for See's (Dragon Bones) riveting look at a little-known chapter in 19th-century Chinese history. In 1903, 80-year-old Lily looks back on her life, which was anchored by her laotong relationship with the beautiful Snow Flower. As little girls, the two communicated in nu shu, writing of their mutual devotion on a fan they passed between each other over the years. Raised according to the traditional restrictions of the times, they lived most of their lives confined to the upstairs women's chamber in their homes, enduring the relentless societal insistence that women are worthless except for their value in producing sons. The laotong bonds of Lily and Snow Flower endure through family tragedies, a typhoid-fever epidemic, and the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, but it is a misunderstood message in nu shu, the language that held them together for decades, that ultimately tears them apart. See's meticulous research and exquisite language deliver a story that is haunting, powerful, and, at times, almost too painful to bear. Highly recommended. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal


A nuanced exploration of women's friendship and women's writing in a remote corner of Imperial China. At the end of her life, Lady Lily Lu, the 80-year-old matriarch of Tongkou village, sits down to write her final memoir-one that will be burned at her death. Using nu shu, a secret script designed and kept by women, Lily spends her final years recounting her training as a woman, her longing for love and the central friendship of her life. Born, in 1823, into an ordinary farming family, Lily might not have ended up as a wealthy matriarch. Her earliest memories are of running through the fields outside with her cousin Beautiful Moon in the last days before her foot-binding. But in childhood, Lily's middle-class fate changed dramatically when the local diviner suggested that her well-formed feet made her eligible for a high-status marriage and for a special ceremonial friendship with a laotong (sworn bosom friend). Accordingly, Lily became laotong with Snow Flower, a charming girl from an upper-class household. Together, the two begin a friendship and intimate nu shu correspondence that develops with them through years of house training, marriages, childbirths and changes in social status. See (Dragon Bones, 2003, etc.) is fascinated by imagining how women with constrained existences might have found solace-and poetry-within the unexpected, little known writing form that is nu shu. Occasionally, in the midst of notes about childbirth and marriages, Lily and Snow Flower wonder how to understand the value of their secret writing in relation to the men's "outside world." The question is left delicately open. As the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) approaches the villages around them, threatening to disrupt the social order, Lily and Snow Flower's private intimacy changes, stretches and is strained. Taut and vibrant, the story offers a delicately painted view of a sequestered world and provides a richly textured account of how women might understand their own lives. A keenly imagined journey into the women's quarters.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?

2. Did See's descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?

3. If some men in 19th-century China knew about nu shu and “old same” friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?

4. Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?

5. Lily's adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?

6. Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?

7. Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect—as an old woman—on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?

8. How would you film these moments of reflection?

9. If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower's response would or should be?

10. Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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