Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel

By Lisa See
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Random House Trade Paperbacks, (5/26/2009)
Language:English



Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.17 out of 5 (6 Clubie's ratings)


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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 Hardcover edition.
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Very good - I can't believe this society's cruelty to women with the foot-binding - just doesn't make sense to me...

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Another early choice. I think we all liked it. LL

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"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel"
By Lisa See

Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.17 out of 5 (6 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 
1. 1. In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?

2. Do you think the concept of "old sames" exists today? Do you have an "old same," or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China?

3. Some men in nineteenth-century China apparently knew about nu shu, the secret women's writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?

4. Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?

5. When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate --- almost erotic --- moment together Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?

6. Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman's chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a "little daughter-in-law"? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter's feet?

7. The Chinese character for "mother love" consists of two parts: one meaning "pain," the other meaning "love." In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?

8. The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there's also an element of atonement in it as well

9. In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?

10. Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives --- we don't have our feet bound, we're free and mobile --- do you think we're still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?

11. Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?

12. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?


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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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. 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Lily at 80 reflects on her life, beginning with her daughter days in 19th-century rural China. Foot-binding was practiced by all but the poorest families, and the graphic descriptions of it are not for the fainthearted. Yet women had nu shu, their own secret language. At the instigation of a matchmaker, Lily and Snow Flower, a girl from a larger town and supposedly from a well-connected, wealthy family, become laotong, bound together for life. Even after Lily learns that Snow Flower is not from a better family, even when Lily marries above her and Snow Flower beneath her, they remain close, exchanging nu shu written on a fan. When war comes, Lily is separated from her husband and children. She survives the winter helped by Snow Flower's husband, a lowly butcher, until she is reunited with her family. As the years pass, the women's relationship changes; Lily grows more powerful in her community, bitter, and harder, until at last she breaks her bond with Snow Flower. They are not reunited until Lily tries to make the dying Snow Flower's last days comfortable. Their friendship, and this tale, illustrates the most profound of human emotions: love and hate, self-absorption and devotion, pride and humility, to name just a few. Even though the women's culture and upbringing may be vastly different from readers' own, the life lessons are much the same, and they will be remembered long after the details of this fascinating story are forgotten.–Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From The Washington Post
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, an old woman fainted in a rural train station. While trying to identify her, authorities found scraps of paper with writing they had never seen, leading them to think she was a spy. But scholars identified the script as nu shu, a writing that had been used exclusively by women for over a thousand years in a remote area of southern Hunan province. Nu shu was different from conventional Chinese script in that it was phonetic and its interpretation was based on context. Years later when author Lisa See became aware of nu shu, her discovery turned into an obsession, resulting in her fourth novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Written in the style of a memoir, the book is narrated by 80-year-old Lily Yi as she looks back on her life. Her story begins in 1828 in her village of Puwei in southwestern China. Her father is a hardworking, respected farmer. As in all traditional Chinese families, sons are revered and daughters are seen as temporary obligations, to be passed on to other families at the time of marriage. Even at age 5, Lily, the third daughter in a family of five children, understands her position.

But everything changes on the day the village diviner arrives to help her mother choose a propitious date for Lily and her cousin to begin having their feet bound. The diviner declares that Lily is no ordinary child. A special matchmaker announces that Lily's feet have particularly high arches and, if properly bound, could be shaped into golden lilies -- those highly coveted tiny, perfect feet that might be their key to prosperity. "Fate -- in the form of your daughter -- has brought you an opportunity," the matchmaker says. "If Mother does her job properly, this insignificant girl could marry into a family in Tongkou." Thus in one day, Lily's position in her family changes -- she remains a commodity, but one that now needs to be nurtured so that the family can realize her full value.

Later the matchmaker also suggests to Lily's mother a laotung match for her daughter, a relationship with a girl from the best village in the county. She is the same age as Lily, and their friendship is meant to last a lifetime, being perhaps even more profound than marriage itself. This match would signal to her future family that Lily is not only a woman with perfect golden lilies but also one who has proved her loyalty. When Lily meets her laotung, Snow Flower, she is given a fan with a secret message written in nu shu script inside.

So begins a correspondence between Lily and her new friend in nu shu -- a language considered by men to be of little importance because it belonged to the realm of women. But for Lily and Snow Flower it provides an opening for expressing and sharing their hopes and fears in lives that are otherwise powerless, repressed and bound by rigid social conventions. In the years that follow, Lily teaches Snow Flower the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning, while Snow Flower teaches Lily the more refined arts of weaving and calligraphy. Their bond also deepens during the extended visits Snow Flower makes to Lily's home.

Through See's careful, detailed descriptions of life in a remote 19th-century Chinese village, we experience a world where women spend their days in upstairs chambers, kowtowing to elders, serving tea and communicating in nu shu. She reveals to us the horrors of foot binding (foot bent back, bones broken and reshaped), a young girl's innocent dreams of life in a new home mingled with fears of being married off to a stranger, and the obsession with bearing sons. Woven through all this is the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower, which is compromised when Lily misinterprets a letter from her friend, cutting herself off from the one person she loves most. Years later, when Lily begins to understand her own failings and the depth of Snow Flower's affection for her, it is too late. She must find other ways to seek forgiveness and make amends.

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.

Reviewed by Judy Fong Bates 
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
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."

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Booklist
Mystery writer See, author of The Interior (1999) and Dragon Bones (2003), takes readers to nineteenth-century China to explore a complex friendship between two women. Lily is the daughter of a farmer in Puwei Village, and Snow Flower is the daughter of a respectable family from Tongkou, and though the two girls have very different backgrounds, Madame Wang pairs the two as laotong, or "old sames," a bond that will last them a lifetime. The two begin to exchange messages in nu shu, a secret language known only to women. Their friendship is cemented during their youth and then put to the test when the girls prepare for marriage and Lily discovers a startling secret about Snow Flower's family. As Lily solidifies her place in her new family, Snow Flower suffers in her marriage, and the two grow apart as Lily's pride in her position swells. See's writing is intricate and graceful, and her attention to detail never wavers, making for a lush, involving reading experience. This beautiful tale should have wide appeal. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

Review
Advance praise for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

“Lisa See has written her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination of a real and secret world that has only recently disappeared. It is a story so mesmerizing the pages float away and the story remains clearly before us from beginning to end.”
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

“I was mesmerized by this wondrous book–the story of a secret civilization of women, who actually lived in China not long ago. . . . Magical, haunting fiction. Beautiful.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

“Only the best novelists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to life not only a character but an entire culture, and a sensibility so strikingly different from our own. This is an engrossing and completely convincing portrayal of a woman shaped by suffering forced upon her from her earliest years, and of the friendship that helps her to survive.”
Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha


From the Hardcover edition. --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition. 

Review
“Lisa See has written her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination of a real and secret world that has only recently disappeared. It is a story so mesmerizing the pages float away and the story remains clearly before us from beginning to end.”—Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

“I was mesmerized by this wondrous book–the story of a secret civilization of women, who actually lived in China not long ago. . . . Magical, haunting fiction. Beautiful.”—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

“Only the best novelists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to life not only a character but an entire culture, and a sensibility so strikingly different from our own. This is an engrossing and completely convincing portrayal of a woman shaped by suffering forced upon her from her earliest years, and of the friendship that helps her to survive.”
Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“[A] marvelous narrative . . . a timeless portrait of a contentious, full-blooded female friendship.”—Entertainment Weekly (Editor’s Choice)

“An achingly beautiful, understated and absorbing story of love [that] evokes the work of Jane Austen.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer 

“A triumph on every level, a beautiful, heartbreaking story.”—Washington Post Book World

“Both heartbreaking and heartbreakingly lovely . . . immerses the reader in an unimagined world . . . The characters and their surroundings come vibrantly alive.”—Denver Post


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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1

Milk Years

My name is Lily. I came into this world on the fifth day of the six month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Puwei, my home village, is in Yongming County, the county of Everlasting Brightness. Most people who live here are descended from the Yao ethnic tribe. From the storytellers who visited Puwei when I was a girl, I learned that the Yao first arrived in this area twelve hundred years ago during the Tang dynasty, but most families came a century later, when they fled the Mongol armies who invaded the north. Although the people of our region have never been rich, we have rarely been so poor that women had to work in the fields.

We were members of the Yi family line, one of the original Yao clans and the most common in the district. My father and uncle leased seven mou of land from a rich landowner who lived in the far west of the province. They cultivated that land with rice, cotton, taro, and kitchen crops. My family home was typical in the sense that it had two stories and faced south. A room upstairs was designated for women’s gathering and for unmarried girls to sleep. Rooms for each family unit and a special room for our animals flanked the downstairs main room, where baskets filled with eggs or oranges and strings of drying chilies hung from the central beam to keep them safe from mice, chickens, or a roaming pig. We had a table and stools against one wall. A hearth where Mama and Aunt did the cooking occupied a corner on the opposite wall. We did not have windows in our main room, so we kept open the door to the alley outside our house for light and air in the warm months. The rest of our rooms were small, our floor was hard-packed earth, and, as I said, our animals lived with us.

I’ve never thought much about whether I was happy or if I had fun as a child. I was a so-so girl who lived with a so-so family in a so-so village. I didn’t know that there might be another way to live, and I didn’t worry about it either. But I remember the day I began to notice and think about what was around me. I had just turned five and felt as though I had crossed a big threshold. I woke up before dawn with something like a tickle in my brain. That bit of irritation made me alert to everything I saw and experienced that day.

I lay between Elder Sister and Third Sister. I glanced across the room to my cousin’s bed. Beautiful Moon, who was my age, hadn’t woken up yet, so I stayed still, waiting for my sisters to stir. I faced Elder Sister, who was four years older than I. Although we slept in the same bed, I didn’t get to know her well until I had my feet bound and joined the women’s chamber myself. I was glad I wasn’t looking in Third Sister’s direction. I always told myself that since she was a year younger she was too insignificant to think about. I don’t think my sisters adored me either, but the indifference we showed one another was just a face we put on to mask our true desires. We each wanted Mama to notice us. We each vied for Baba’s attention. We each hoped we would spend time every day with Elder Brother, since as the first son he was the most precious person in our family. I did not feel that kind of jealousy with Beautiful Moon. We were good friends and happy that our lives would be linked together until we both married out.

The four of us looked very similar. We each had black hair that was cut short, we were very thin, and we were close in height. Otherwise, our distinguishing features were few. Elder Sister had a mole above her lip. Third Sister’s hair was always tied up in little tufts, because she did not like Mama to comb it. Beautiful Moon had a pretty round face, while my legs were sturdy from running and my arms strong from carrying my baby brother.

“Girls!” Mama called up the stairs to us.

That was enough to wake up the others and get us all out of bed. Elder Sister hurriedly got dressed and went downstairs. Beautiful Moon and I were slower, because we had to dress not only ourselves but Third Sister as well. Then together we went downstairs, where Aunt swept the floor, Uncle sang a morning song, Mama—with Second Brother swaddled on her back—poured the last of the water into the teapot to heat, and Elder Sister chopped scallions for the rice porridge we call congee. My sister gave me a tranquil look that I took to mean that she had already earned the approval of my family this morning and was safe for the rest of the day. I tucked away my resentment, not understanding that what I saw as her self-satisfaction was something closer to the cheerless resignation that would settle on my sister after she married out.

“Beautiful Moon! Lily! Come here! Come here!”

My aunt greeted us this way each and every morning. We ran to her. Aunt kissed Beautiful Moon and patted my bottom affectionately. Then Uncle swooped in, swept up Beautiful Moon in his arms, and kissed her. After he set her back down, he winked at me and pinched my cheek.

You know the old saying about beautiful people marrying beautiful people and talented people marrying talented people? That morning I concluded that Uncle and Aunt were two ugly people and therefore perfectly matched. Uncle, my father’s younger brother, had bowlegs, a bald head, and a full shiny face. Aunt was plump, and her teeth were like jagged stones protruding from a karst cave. Her bound feet were not very small, maybe fourteen centimeters long, twice the size of what mine eventually became. I’d heard wicked tongues in our village say that this was the reason Aunt—who was of healthy stock, with wide hips—could not carry a son to term. I’d never heard these kinds of reproaches in our home, not even from Uncle. To me, they had an ideal marriage; he was an affectionate rat and she was a dutiful ox. Every day they provided happiness around the hearth.

My mother had yet to acknowledge that I was in the room. This is how it had been for as long as I could remember, but on that day I perceived and felt her disregard. Melancholy sank into me, whisking away the joy I had just felt with Aunt and Uncle, stunning me with its power. Then, just as quickly, the feeling disappeared, because Elder Brother, who was six years older than I was, called me to help him with his morning chores. Having been born in the year of the horse, it is in my nature to love the outdoors, but even more important I got to have Elder Brother completely to myself. I knew I was lucky and that my sisters would hold this against me, but I didn’t care. When he talked to me or smiled at me I didn’t feel invisible.

We ran outside. Elder Brother hauled water up from the well and filled buckets for us to carry. We took them back to the house and set out again to gather firewood. We made a pile, then Elder Brother loaded my arms with the smaller sticks. He scooped up the rest and we headed home. When we got there, I handed the sticks to Mama, hoping for her praise. After all, it’s not so easy for a little girl to lug a bucket of water or carry firewood. But Mama didn’t say anything.

Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. I was five, old enough to know I didn’t deserve her attention, but suddenly I craved it. I longed for her to look at me and talk to me the way she did with Elder Brother. But even in that moment of my first truly deep desire, I was smart enough to know that Mama wouldn’t want me to interrupt her during this busy time when so often she had scolded me for talking too loudly or had swatted at the air around me because I got in her way. Instead, I vowed to be like Elder Sister and help as quietly and carefully as I could.

Grandmother tottered into the room. Her face looked like a dried plum, and her back bent so far forward that she and I saw eye to eye.

“Help your grandmother,” Mama ordered. “See if she needs anything.”

Even though I had just made a promise to myself, I hesitated. Grandmother’s gums were sour and sticky in the mornings, and no one wanted to get near her. I sidled up to her, holding my breath, but she waved me away impatiently. I moved so quickly that I bumped into my father—the eleventh and most important person in our household.

He didn’t reprimand me or say anything to anyone else. As far as I knew, he wouldn’t speak until this day was behind him. He sat down and waited to be served. I watched Mama closely as she wordlessly poured his tea. I may have been afraid that she would notice me during her morning routine, but she was even more mindful in her dealings with my father. He rarely hit my mother and he never took a concubine, but her caution with him made us all heedful.

Aunt put bowls on the table and spooned out the congee, while Mama nursed the baby. After we ate, my father and my uncle set out for the fields, and my mother, aunt, grandmother, and older sister went upstairs to the women’s chamber. I wanted to go with Mama and the other women in our family, but I wasn’t old enough. To make matters worse, I now had to share Elder Brother with my baby brother and Third Sister when we went back outside.

I carried the baby on my back as we cut grass and foraged for roots for our pig. Third Sister followed us as best she could. She was a funny, ornery little thing. She acted spoiled, when the only ones who had a right to be spoiled were our brothers. She thought she wa...

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Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret FanFlower 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. 


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