The March selection for the William & Mary Boston Alumni Chapter Book Club is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. For the first time ever I “read” a book by listening to it as an audiobook. I’ve avoided doing this so far in my life mainly due to a snob factor, a sense of superiority in actually reading a book. On the other hand I always expected I would space out and not pay attention to the story being read in my ears. But due to my not having the time to read another book but lots of time to listen to my iPod at work I overcame these two objections and downloaded this book at Audible.com.
Lisa See’s novel is not what I expected. First I thought it would be one of those novels where the protagonist would be anachronistically feminist, but Lily while acknowledging the reality of her inequality speaks and acts as a woman of her time. Second I saw the book heading down the path of the “love that cannot be spoken” type of soft erotica, but I was wrong. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan deals in inimate terms simply with the love of friends.
The book is beautifully written and often moving. It deals with the life of women in 19th century Chinese hinterlands depicting how women were considered worthless in their society and graphically depicting the practice of footbinding (who thought that was a good idea anyway?).
The narrator Lily leads something of a charmed life as she is paired with another girl her same age Sun Flower to be her laotong or “old same.” Thus begins a rare lifelong friendship between two women. Conflict arises from the fact that while Lily is ascending, Sun Flower is on the decline. Despite this their friendship is almost able to overcome all except for a tragic mistake. The story is interesting but the depiction of friendship is the key to this novel.