Ow. Ow. I had no idea . . .

h1 September 24th, 2006 by jules

snowflower.gif. . . that foot-binding in the-days-gone-by of China was so painful. I say that at the great risk of sounding dreadfully dingy, but I just had no idea it was so flat-out bloody, even resulting in death for many young girls — oh, and that it served as a source of erotic fetishism for men when the girls became women. Who knew? Not I. When I mentioned to Eisha that I was reading about it, she commiserated, having experienced her own shuddering cringes, I’m sure, when reading about the bone-breaking, blood-tinged foot-binding pain in Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound. I know, I know. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it — that it would bring about excruciating pain. But, I’d never really thought about it or, obviously, read about it. Lisa See describes it with great candor and detail in her latest novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), a book that is marketed for adult audiences but was reviewed by School Library Journal as a great title for YA audiences as well.

But, really, the foot-binding isn’t what stands out in this novel. What compels one to keep page-turning this moving story are See’s sharp, stirring characterizations and the sweeping, heavy themes to which just about everyone can relate — friendship, honor, pride, forgiveness, envy, and much, much more — all in just a little over 250 pages. Because of See’s expert touch, she managed to take this rather esoteric era of 19th entury Chinese history, which was so foreign to me in so many ways, and make it familiar and make me really, really care what happened. And we are sent on our way in the end with a weighty farewell and a metaphorical kowtow from a narrator whose final words are still lingering in my mind, still knocking my heart around a bit in all their sorrow and urgency.

In the novel’s opening, we meet Lily — whom her village calls “one who has not yet died,” an eighty-year old widow (women in her county at this time were only expected to live until about age forty) — who is recording, for those who live in the afterworld, the story of her life. She has spent a little under half a decade reading and re-reading the words written on a fan, the words recorded by her and her laotong, her “old same,” her secret -writing partner: “. . .{I}t records so much joy and so much grief. I open it quickly, and the sound each fold makes as it spreads reminds me of a fluttering heart. Memories tear across my eyes. These last forty years, I have read it so many times that it is memorized like a childhood song.”

Lily was the child of a cold, emotionally-distant mother, whose painful slap across her daughter’s face was Lily’s first sign of any maternal regard (“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 . . .”). She is also a daughter born into an extremely injust and patriarchal society who valued her only for what prestige and riches she could bring into the filial home after being married off. For these reasons, Lily spent her childhood looking for love. Daughters’ feet were bound, beginning at age six. Women, considered worthless unless they could bear sons, were concealed in second-floor women’s chambers, ordered to stay away from men’s outside dealings of the world. In these chambers in the county into which Lily is born, the women created their own secret, phonetic code for communication, what was called nu shu, or women’s writing. They chanted and composed story-songs as well, reaching out to one another in all their isolation. And girls paired with the above-mentioned laotongs worked with the local matchmaker; this matchmaker worked hard to find an arranged friendship, if you will, an emotional match for the girl (they must be alike in character and in spirit). A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage, Lily’s mother was told.

At the age of seven, Lily is matched with Snow Flower — a beautiful young girl from a large town and, Lily is told, from a prestigious family; Lily’s matchmaker aims to improve Lily’s social standing and hopes she will learn refinement from Snow Flower in order to be able to better fit into a higher household one day. A fan with the women’s writing is sent to Lily from Snow Flower: “I understand there is a girl of good character and women’s learning in your home. You and I are of the same year and the same day. Could we not be sames together?” . . . Lily and Snow Flower are now bound in friendship for life. And, Lily wonders, “how could I make her love me the way I longed to be loved.”

Lily’s and Snow Flower’s steady, unwavering friendship takes them through childhood, their arranged marriages, motherhood, differences in class standing, famine, a typhoid epidemic, the Taiping Rebellion of 1851 to 1864, and even a perfectly chaste yet erotic moment (if that makes any sense) between the two of them as teens — all the time communicating in nu shu on their fan, passed back and forth between them. But when a misunderstanding — shrouded in issues of class, deep sorrow, abuse, bitter jealousy, and the cultural restrictions of the time — arises, their friendship threatens to dissolve altogether.

Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote that this “is not a book that will make its mark for reasons of style.” She describes See’s writing in this novel as one possessing a “stately but unremarkable prettiness” (and Maslin is quick to point out the tinges of melodrama in the book, including what she calls its conventional structure — beginning the book, that is, with Lily’s old age and following with her autobiographical account). In this way, Maslin nails it in terms of style; I wish I had written that. But a memorable style is not necessary here. The book succeeds with what Maslin calls its “quiet staying power.” Furthermore, See really grabs the reader with her ability to chronicle a time and place not covered in history class. And she managed all this detail through the meticulous research of women’s duties and expectations in China during this time period, as explained in the author’s note that closes the book. However, I will add: See sometimes uses the characters’ dialogue to explain certain customary actions for that time. At one point, for instance, Lily and Snow Flower are discussing the superstitions believed at that time to bring about a pregnancy, but — as they rattle those conditions off to one another — I found it a bit strained, finding it difficult to believe they would talk in that way, considering they both knew these beliefs and didn’t need to point them out to one another. But, it’s a minor complaint. A majority of the time I was so wrapped up in the characters and what would come next that I found it a seamless, compelling read.

But, then I also am a big ‘ol, big ‘ol sucker for the themes of so-called women’s fiction: in this case, the devoted and unswerving power of female friendships. Oh, and a quick-shout out to my wicked smart cousin, Linda, for recommending this welcome read and this author to me. I look forward to what See does next.

2 comments to “Ow. Ow. I had no idea . . .”

  1. I also felt there was a dramatic tension in this book perhaps peculiar to a Western upbringing with its Puritanical attitudes toward homosexual love. While bound both literally and figuratively by so many conventions of their culture, these two young girls experience erotic love for each other as well as a lasting emotional bond, which in Western culture would be so, soooo TABOO. When Lily first finds out that Snow Flower has chosen other “sisters”, I felt that she was as devastated by the betrayal of this sexual union as their emotional bond. For Lisa See, this unconventional conventionalism is not an issue at all, and she never addresses it. Lily even feels a bit of jealousy toward Snow Flower’s husband when she finds that Snow Flower enjoys sex with him. While she indulges in relations with her own husband, she never finds the joy in his arms and from the touch of his fingers as from Snow Flower. While I am most certainly not a homophobe, I do think that this flies in the face of convention in Western culture and yet passed by nearly unnoticed as an integral part of the wonderful, loving relationship between these two women.

  2. Snow Flower is on my Spring Reading Challenge list. As I remember Bound, it is hard to imagine something more graphic. It is good to know that SLJ thinks it appropriate for YA.

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