Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See was the April selection for my book group, but I was in the over-achieving mode, so I started it early.
It's a relatively short book, about 250 pages, but what you get in those pages is a whole other world. It's set in nineteenth-century China, a time and place where class and gender determine the quality and rules of lives.
In this book, you follow Lily from a bright seven year old to a dimming elderly woman. As she tells you about her life, you come to understand how a woman's status was developed from the culture's definition of beauty, most importantly, the smallness of her feet. Lily was destined to have exceptional feet; those that would be easily bound and broken to submit to the cultural ideal at the time.
Those carefully bound feet would allow her to step up to a less common ground than the rest of her family. She is paired with another young girl in a laotong match that will last a lifetime. This is an emotional match that seemed to be allow the women to love and share in a time where it wasn't expected in their marriages.
The marriages were arranged. Through Lily and her laotong's matches you're taken to a time where women's usefulness was officially relegated to bearing male offspring. Females were considered weak and worthless.
This book focused on the power women had anyway. Their friendships and their secret nu shu language gave them a place and the means to stick up for themselves, to express themselves and to make meaning of their own lives. When Lily and Snow Flower's deep friendship is threatened, so are their very spirits.
I enjoyed following the friendship of these two girls as they grew into women. Two girls bound together in a laotong or many women bound as sworn sisters emphasized the importance of women's friendships. These women were expected to be together to prepare for the arranged marriages, creating slippers, clothes, and quilts, and then again when they outlived those husbands; the women could rely on each other when they were old and not re-marriage material.
I couldn't help relating the foot binding with other unrealistic or painful beauty ideals of today and the more recent past. Even Lily and Snow Flower-- with their feet bound small enough to be measured in centimeters--can't understand why women would allow their waists to be cinched small enough to be able to wrap their fingers around. Back in those days, an ultra tiny waist was considered beautiful in some parts of the world. At the height of Sex and the City fever, modern day foot binding, or getting a bone or two removed to fit into Jimmy Choo's, was not unheard of. People still take their lives in their hands when they try to meet the latest ideal. Young girls back then died from foot binding, young girls even today die from female genital mutilation, and some people have even died from complications from cosmetic surgery.
Will there ever be a time when just being ourselves is enough?