Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fascinating World of Friendship and Foot Binding in 19th Century China

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2005, 285pp.)

A story of two girls in nineteenth century China, Lily and Snow Flower, who become laotong, sworn sisters in a bond of sacred friendship. Together, they survive foot binding, marriage, childbirth, and the Taiping Rebellion. The author explores an oppressive yet fascinating world where foot binding is not only fashionable but necessary for women to marry well, and where women are confined to the upstairs rooms for the rest of their lives, using their own secret-code language, nu shu, to communicate with each other. While the story See has chosen to focus on—that of two women—has fascinating potential, her book suffers from the author’s choice of narrator. Lily tells us her story in a voice that is regrettably detached, a POV which is usually chosen by authors for its intimacy with character. Lily skims along the surface of her life’s story in two hundred pages—not nearly enough time to explore a complex relationship between two women, let alone two lifetimes. This hurried tone cripples any sense of character development, presenting the reader with the mere shadows of two women instead of the emotional wallop of flesh and blood characters. There is too much telling and not enough showing to make the reader really care. It is the background world, unfortunately, that outshines everything, and makes the novel seem more like an excuse to explore the world of historical China than to tell a story about two women.

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