Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

At the age of 7, Lily and Snow Flower became laotong, or “old sames,” a Chinese practice which established their lifelong relationship as kindred sisters.  They were matched based on their birth date and other characteristics.  Snow Flower was from a “better” family, and the match was expected to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. Snow Flower visited Lily’s family every few months.  They experienced life’s milestones together: from foot-binding to menstruation, through arranged marriages, childbirth, and child-rearing.  Their friendship was deep, and endured despite many challenges and hardships.  They recorded life events on a fan, given to them at the beginning of their laotong, and sent back and forth between them over the years.

Lily & Snow Flower’s story was rich with details of 19th-century Chinese culture with its very traditional — even oppressive — treatment of women.  Female relationships, like  laotong and the concept of “sworn sisters,” made life bearable.  Women established their own community, their own rituals, and even their own language, and this became the source of their strength.  I really enjoyed learning about this period in history.

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lily tells their story from the vantage point of old age, with all the significant characters now dead.  As a narrative technique, this worked well: it allowed her to speak freely about relationships with her parents, her in-laws, her husband, and of course, Snow Flower.  But she was also too kind to herself, and early in her life, I often wondered how Lily was viewed by those around her.  Some of this is revealed in later chapters as the central conflict is presented.  As readers we see Lily’s mistakes, we see how she fails to own up to them, and we see the impact on her laotong.  But we also see how truth is revealed to her, and we experience the healing power of forgiveness.  This is a lovely book about essential women’s friendships, and the characters will live on in my thoughts for a long time.