In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. As the years pass, Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower, send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
“I am old enough to know only too well my good and bad qualities, which were often one and the same. For my entire life I longed
for love. I knew it was not right for me - as a girl and later as a woman - to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my
In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan country 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.
It would be easy to modernize the narration and character opinions, but the author stayed true to the mindset of women of that time. I appreciated that. While foot binding is really a practice I could not begin to comprehend in my mindset along with seeing the “beauty” of having small feet, back then it was a means to a husband, family, and a better life (but it was probably also just another way in which women were kept submissive and secluded). Foot binding was accepted by the women of that time. As foot binding is hard to visualize (7 cm feet?), I went to the Internet to look for images of this practice. How sad to see how these women’s feet were, basically, mutilated in what was considered beauty of that time!
Being able to keep the narrator relatable while also keeping the historical mindset was a challenge that I think See accomplished brilliantly. I was able to feel empathy for the narrator because I could understand her longing to be loved and was able to comprehend the difficulties she had in her upbringing that formed her personality. Eventually when she grew up, she had expectations about love that were never met because she herself never learned to bend. She expected Snow Flower to do as she did. She did not invest emotionally when Snow Flower did things differently. And WOW… talk about emotionally charged! This would be the second book that has brought tears to my eyes and made me cry while reading it. The first? The last Harry Potter!
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.”
Its so interesting how the story is about Snow Flower but told by Lily, whose eyes we see things through. We only know Snow Flower via Lily, and we really come to love Snow Flower just as Lily does if not more. The dynamics and development of these characters was what kept me reading! Women were thought of as nothing back then. Their value was in their sons. Snow Flower was one woman who wanted more in life while Lily ended up a product of what society told her to be. Snow Flower finds her value in her friendship with Lily, while Lily plants her roots within social constructs. She was married into a good family with a kind husband who never took in a concubine and never hit her, she had a healthy son first, she became a woman of importance, but she attributed this to her strict adherence to the rules and not to her own person. Because of this, I believe this is why she missed out on the love Snow Flower was offering her freely. Lily never really finds herself to be of value. Even when she first met her laotong, she thought of herself as inferior to Snow Flower and stupid. Her mindset is that she follows the rules, and she sees herself blessed from that practice. Along the narration, Lily realizes her mistakes over and over again in what she does not see with Snow Flower, but she still becomes that detached motherly figure, just like her own mom was to her. Do this, and you’ll find happiness. Do that, and you’ll cause yourself trouble! Make another son, and you’ll be happy! It’s the fallout of this relationship that really builds up into a strong finale for the story. Even after Snow Flower dies, Lily comes to realize that Snow Flower basically did everything Lily wanted her to do in her suffering. She took treatments she didn’t want to take, she held onto life because Lily wanted her to, she tried to please Lily, even up to her painful death. And Snow Flower’s realization of all she had done, how she had thought about how Snow Flower’s suffering affected her versus what Snow Flower was feeling, how Lily misinterpreted things and ended up ruining her laotong’s reputation, never asking Snow Flower what she wanted or how she was, and finally Lily’s reflection on all this in the end, all of these feelings build up and made me feel Lily’s loss of not only her friend but also the time and opportunity she threw out.
Reading about these women’s lives was at times painful. The story is fiction but well researched. I really felt the culture, and I know little to nothing about Chinese history. Things about the culture were told in a matter-of-fact manner in the narration (“this is the way it is”), but I felt like I was breathing along with Lily and experiencing her hardships with her, like her foot binding. Its the emotions and needs of these women that are the same throughout history and make this story fresh and relevant. To remember the struggles of these women is, I believe, a credit to their lives which would otherwise have been forgotten.
“The three most important powers are Heaven, Earth and Man. The three luminaries are the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. Opportunities given by Heaven are not equal to the advantages afforded by Earth, while the advantages of Earth do not match the blessings that come from harmony among men”
I kept hearing over and over how having a daughter was considered “just another mouth to feed” until she left for her husband’s family. It was continually beat into the girls’ heads as it was the reader’s. I didn’t find this to be mindless repetition but instead saw it as the way women were addressed and treated. It was part of the experience of feeling myself standing beside Lily. Women were kept in their “upper rooms” most of the time. When thinking about it, we all have “upper rooms” we stay safe in. At home on the computer or focusing on family and not myself... what mother doesn’t do that? Lily fell victim to these things in her “rice and salt” years as I think we all easily can even nowadays. Lily’s inner conflicts are relatable. You can also see this historical mindset in other ways as when Third Sister was dying from an infection and the family chose not to “waste” cash on things to ease her suffering while she died. The stories they sung about women being submissive in order to teach lessons of how they should live their lives was sad to hear too! While Snow Flower fought against this, Lily did not. Lily wanted to be like Snow Flower, but while Snow Flower had learned refinement and dignity, Lily only learned the rules she must follow. Lily knows that Snow Flower is being beaten, but while she sticks her neck out to prevent Snow Flower’s son from being starved because he is seen as weak (when they are stuck in the mountains hiding from marauders), she accepts that husbands beat their wives when Snow Flower was in trouble and being beaten. I think it strongly showed social constraints that Lily never broke free of.
See is fantastic at imagery. I felt like I was watching a brilliantly directed movie as I visualized everything. The way Snow Flower would put her hand over Lily’s cheek at night to help her sleep, the intricate embroidery messages, the peeling open of the fan slowly, the look and feel of the homes, etc. In addition, See brings to life truly dynamic and strong women who, unfortunately, never learn to value themselves. They could have become more through their friendship, but harsh expectations eventually tore Lily away.
The concept of nu shu is truly a beautiful one. To read about one way women rebelled against their oppression was amazing. Women found an outlet to share emotions and thoughts. In their homes they were expected to obey. In their writing, they could come alive to the women they formed a sisterhood with.
“In our country we call this type of mother love teng ai. My son has told me that in men's writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother's love.”
See’s storytelling shows a wonderful grace that makes you look at your own life. When have you accepted fate at face value? When have you let anger corrupt your thoughts and relationships? How have you treasured your friendship? When have you looked fate in the eye and had the courage to change it? How do you love others and what do you expect from them in return? I remember moving right before the start of my 4th grade year to a new city. I was overwhelmed and sad. I had difficulties making friends. But I had a pen pal. Each time a letter arrived, my heart lifted. We would tell each other our dreams and our hopes for the future. I felt this same feeling all over again as Lily received her fan from Snow Flower. I think the power of a friendship through writing, where you have to wait for the letters to be delivered versus instant messaging, is really a lost art. But I knew what Lily felt when she opened that fan. I think the power of that is what really drew me in to this story. I firmly believe that friendship of this nature, through writing, is patient and long-lasting.
This was a beautiful and bittersweet tale of the power of love between friends. Nothing in this book was predictable, and it always kept me on the edge of my seat. I felt constantly concerned about the characters as I read! Yet, it’s not just an incredible tale of friendship, it’s also about what it means to be a woman and what defines a woman’s life. From the magic See weaves in her storytelling in this book, I don’t think even Shakespeare could have written this tragedy any better! While I was so sad how things turned out for these friends, the journey was a memorable one and well worth it. I will definitely pick up another book See has written as well as read this one again.
“Only one person ever truly mattered to me, but I was worse to her than he worst husband. After Snow Flower asked me to be an aunt to her children, she said – and these were the last words she ever spoke to me – “Though I was not as good as you, I believe that heavenly spirits joined us. We will be together forever.” So many times I’ve thought back on that. Was she speaking the truth? What if the afterworld has no sympathy? But if the dead continue to have the needs and desires of the living, then I’m reaching out to Snow Flower and the others who witnessed it all. Please hear my words. Please forgive me.”
Just released December 2016: "The Forgotten" volume 2 "Heir of the Heretic"
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse