I specialize in reviewing Print-On-Demand (POD) published books for my website and Midwest Book Review. Please query for a review by email to hgunther234@hotmail.com.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Random House, Inc.
Genre: Historical Fiction Memoir
Rating: Excellent
ISBN: 1400060281, $11.56, 260 pp.

Quoting from the cover:

“In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county 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.

“With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become ‘old sames’ at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.”

From reading past reviews and listening to others discuss this fictional memoir, I understand that most readers found Lily lacking in her compassion and love for Snow Flower. This is certainly understandable, as it is Lily herself who reproaches herself for her shortcomings.

As you read this fictional memoir, I would ask that you consider the following questions: What is a loving relationship? Can a friendship initiated and perpetuated on lies and deception be considered a loving relationship? Was this a true laotong (contracted loving relationship) or a one-sided effort at love?

Chapter 1, Sitting Quietly, opens with:

“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 life.”

To me, this thought is the essence of the fictional memoir, and though Lily may not have felt she was loved during her lifetime, she did experience love through her giving and efforts, ignorant as they might have been, to love and help her laotong, Snow Flower.

Narrated in the first person by Lily we know only what she experienced, thought and did. She had been deceived from the very beginning by Snow Flower, Madame Wang and her mother. When Lily visited Snow Flower’s home for the first time and discovered the truth, after ten years of friendship, Snow Flower reacted with angry tears:

“Don’t pity me! I don’t want it!”

Lily’s reaction was:

“Pity had not entered my mind. I felt sick with confusion and sadness...
Maybe I should have been angry at Snow Flower for lying to me, but that’s not what I felt. I had believed I had been plucked for a special future, which made me too self-centered to see what was directly in front of me. Wasn’t it my lack as a friend–as a laotong–that had prevented me from asking Snow Flower the right questions about her past and her future...

“I was at a moment of supreme confusion, and I believe it set the stage for what happened later. I didn’t know my mind. I didn’t see or understand what was important. I was just a stupid girl who thought she knew something because she was married....”

Lily had no control over anything...her own life and future, nor Snow Flower’s social disgrace and marriage to a husband with a polluted occupation. And yet, I see her expression of love for Snow Flower through her actions: 1) When Lily realized the problem at Snow Flower’s home, she set about making the bad situation as nice as possible so Snow Flower would have a proper, traditional marriage; 2) When Lily’s mother-in-law and husband wanted her not to have any contact with Snow Flower, she continued to visit her secretly; 3) When they were in the mountains and it was evident that Snow Flower was not fond of her first son, Lily taught the boy what she knew from what her son had been taught. The girls learned from each other. Lily appreciated Snow Flower's talents--her delicate nu shu and embroidery, and Snow Flower learned how to clean a house and do chores.

It was Snow Flower who wrote the letter which caused so much pain and misunderstanding:

“I have too many troubles... I cannot be what you wish. You won’t have to listen to my complaints anymore. Three sworn sisters have promised to love me as I am. Write to me, not to console me as you have been doing, but to remember our happy girl-days together.”

Lily’s response to receiving the letter was:

“This pain was unlike anything I had felt before...I had always made allowances for Snow Flower out of love. But once I began to focus on her weaknesses, a pattern of deceit, deception, and betrayal began to emerge. I thought about all the times Snow Flower had lied to me–about her family, about her married life, even about her beatings. Not only had she not been a faithful laotong, she had not even been a very good friend. A Friend would have been honest and forthright. If all this were not enough, I let memories of the recent weeks wash over me. Snow Flower had taken advantage of my money and position to gain better clothes, better food, and a better situation for her daughter, while ignoring all my help and suggestions. I felt duped and immensely foolish.”

At a later gathering, in front of other women, Snow Flower sang a Letter of Vituperation to tell about her sad life and to berate Lily.

”It seems I am cursed by fate. I must have done bad deeds in a former life. I am seen as less than others.

"...for 27 years...we always spoke true words. We were like long vines, reaching out to each other, forever entwined. But when I hold her of my sadness, she had no patience. When she saw how poor I was in spirit, she reminded me that men farm and women weave, that industriousness brings no hunger, believing I could change my destiny.... Why have your turned away from me? You and I are laotong–together in our souls even when we couldn’t be together in our daily lives. And why have you hurt my daughter?”

And Lily retaliated with the truth.

When Snow Flower was dying, the sworn sisters told Lily that Snow Flower had never loved them, only Lily. And once again, Lily was there for Snow Flower.

Throughout their contracted laotong, Snow Flower felt sorry for herself/her fate, deceived Lily, chose to interpret Lily’s love and help as pity, didn’t appreciate Lily’s efforts to stay in touch, and berated her in public. There is very little in this story, as demonstrated by Snow Flower's actions or behavior, that could be interpreted as love for Lily...or for anyone else. Just saying so, does not make it so.

In the end, as in the beginning, and after lengthy consideration, it is my feeling that Lily just wanted to be loved and through her strong desire experienced love by giving love.

Lisa See is a wonderful, gifted writer with an enchanting, delicate, lyrical style. Her research for this fictional memoir brings to life aspects of Chinese culture in the early 1800s such as Confucian thought, foot binding, nu shu writing and the economic/political hierarchy.

Kaye Trout - August 25, 2009