The Reference Desk: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Note from Professor Elliot: This month will bring three new authors! The first is Jeana, known by us as the Librarian. Ms. Jeana is a bibliophile and a librarian in training. On the second weekend of each month, the Librarian will be posting her book recommendations under the title The Reference Desk! Now on to her first book of the month:


In the rural lands of Nineteenth Century China blooms a friendship of two young women discovering love, loss, and the secret form of writing that binds them together like the laces on their feet. Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a top-shelf read straight from the Reference Desk!

This novel has made a slow, deliberate journey into the growing collection of my books. This New York Times Bestseller came highly recommended by a women’s magazine for its emphasis on the significance of women’s relationships. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is not just a tale of two women but an intensive study of Chinese culture from flower arranging to foot binding.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is narrated in first person by the character Lilly in her youthful “Milk Years” and into her old age of “Sitting Quietly.” The story is told in a sense of retrospect – a regret for ills to come after Lilly is discovered to be an excellent case for a perfectly bound foot and also a laotong match. A laotong, or “old-same” signifies a divinely sanctioned, life-long friendship between two women that must be kept secret from the world of men. These secret relationships flourish in a form of writing called nu shu, a style of writing developed by women to communicate their struggles of daily life away from the harsh expectations Chinese society. Lilly enters into an arrangement with the free-spirited Snow Flower and their lives are captured in nu shu characters on a traveling fan from beginning to pitiful end after the friendship falls apart and Lilly is left to her Sitting Quietly, contemplating her life as a woman and a friend in her past experiences.

Lisa See’s vigorous research of the novel’s subject contributes greatly to the success of the work. The realism of each passage often had me questioning whether or not the book was biographical and not fiction. The historiography of the work is exceptional and if  the novel is not read for the sake of understanding the intricacies of women’s relationships, it can be greatly appreciated for its alternative perspectives on Chinese history. See’s graphic description of the footbinding process was so vivid that I wondered if she had experienced the horror for herself. The process is detailed down to the breaking of bones and even a death from the cruelty of the bindings. Each moment in the life of the characters presents a structure in a previously unknown culture, barring the strangeness of certain sexual situations that seemed out of place in the novel. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will enlighten and fascinate readers for its authenticity and exoticism from one book lover to another! Collect it from a Reference Desk today!

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