Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
I've seen this book several times over the past few years, but never bothered to pick it up. For some reason, the title made me think it was some kind of mystery that just happened to be set in Japan or China simply to capitalize on interest in those countries through superficial means. I was completely wrong. Next time, before I judge a book on its cover, I might want to actually at least read the backflap. Of course, another reason I was hesitant to pick it up was because I've heard critiques about Amy Tan, and how she writes Chinese characters and culture in a way that exoticizes them and appeals to whites. I didn't want to discover another author who was doing the exact same thing.
There is no mystery, instead, this novel is an incredible and amazing story about two women's friendship with each other. The fan is simply a gift they share that they use to record significant events in their lives on, and the reason it is ''secret'' is because of the language they use to communicate. As I discovered through this novel, in one part of China, women had their own secret written language that they used to communicate with each other since they were discouraged from learning the regular, "male" writing.
At a time when the life expectancy for women was around 40 years old, Lily, the narrator, lives to over 80, and decides to write this story to reflect on her life. Born to a poor, and not so well-to-do family, Lily's family discovers that Lily might be their key to moving up in the world: when it is time to have her feet bound, the local diviner calls in outside help because her feet could be extraordinarily small and perfect if done correctly. Having perfect "Golden Lilies" would open many doors for Lily in the marriage market later in life. Additionally, this also allows her to have a special relationship with another girl from another village, Snow Flower, who is of a higher class than her. All of this will be Lily's family's way out of poverty.
While Lily discusses her marriage briefly, her main focus throughout the novel is her relationship with Snow Flower as well as other women. While there are several, heartbreaking family tragedies along the way, everything goes according to plan for Lily. Over the years, her friendship with Snow Flower remains constant, even through secrets and changing circumstances. However, there are also plenty of misunderstandings, and Lily's confronting her past to deal with her guilt and her regrets.
I was very impressed by this novel. The portrayal of women's lives in China was incredibly interesting, though of course for the most part, these families are all of a slightly higher class simply due to the fact that they engage in footbinding. The servants, for example, have normal sized feet. While women's lives and fortunes depended very much on the men they were attached to (which can be seen in Lily's rise, but even more in Snow Flower's life), this novel is still about women's relationships and the ways they occasionally use and betray each other but also how much they can care and nurture each other. I'm generally pretty unemotional, but there was a scene in the book where even I almost felt some tears welling up. Definitely recommend this one.