Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See

I first heard about this book from Georgia (who is the weirdest person I know, in an I-fried-my-brain-on-acid-in-the-60s kind of way) and then from Kate of Kate's Library. Both Georgia and Kate recommended Snow Flower to me, so I put it on my wish list. And then, if you can believe it, I won a copy from the lovely and generous She! I've been plagued by a lifetime of neverwinanythingness until just this past year. I'm hoping a new precedent has been set. Maybe I should start playing the lottery.

It took me forEVER to finally pick up this book, and I know exactly why. Though I am fascinated by subtle cultural differences, I tend to overlook books that are too different from what I know. I like discovering what I have in common with other people (whether real live ones or literary characters). I'm sure this has much to do with the fact that I can more easily relate when I'm able to draw clear parallels to my own life. Not only is this is unfortunate, but it's probably also a misconception. I think I often underestimate an author's ability to show me how I can relate even to people (or settings or situations) I find foreign. As Lisa See said in her "Note About the Writing of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,"

Yes, our lives are completely different from those lived by the nu shu writers, but inside we are the same . . . at our cores we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquility, and to be heard.

My version of footbinding.

I found the book a bit slow to start, and the vivid descriptions of footbinding were pretty horrifying, but it quickly picked up after that. The author was right--I really can relate to characters whose lives are completely different from mine. And I realized how grateful I am that I can walk and run quite comfortably on my great big feet. The only time I experience painful footbinding, it is temporary and completely voluntary.

The real thing. I prefer my version.
Allow me to display a bit of my ignorance (yeah, like I've never done that before). I always thought that footbinding just kept a child's foot from growing. I had no idea how grotesque and painful the reality was. Did you know that footbinding trained the four smaller toes to curl under the sole of the foot, and that it rotated the calcaneus so that the bottom of the heel met the ball of the foot? Or that it was common, even expected, for bones to break during the process? Or that, if the desired results were achieved, an adult woman might end up with a foot just seven centimeters in length? Anne, you have probably broken out in a cold sweat just reading about this.

But this novel is not about footbinding. That practice is more of a backdrop for the story. It's a constant presence, but ultimately it's only one of the many ways women were constrained in nineteenth century China. The true story lies with the deep friendship between the narrator, Lily, and her laotong, Snow Flower. The two girls were paired at the age of seven, kind of like kindred spirits but with an official contract. Their story, from childhood to maturity, through happiness and hardship, affinity and betrayal, is woven together with the history of China's Taiping Revolution.

It's a good thing I enjoyed this book, because there is more Lisa See in my future. I already have a copy of Shanghai Girls, and am curious about Peony in Love. I wonder if it's about the same Peony mentioned in Snow Flower?

Movie news: they're currently filming this one too. I'm not sure when it will be released, but it looks like it will be some time during 2011. Here's a head-scratcher: Hugh Jackman is in it. For a bit of comic relief on that topic, read this first--but the really funny part is here.

To pass along the good karma (maybe you'll start winning stuff too!) I'm going to give away my copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I'll ship it anywhere in the universe. Just leave a comment with your email address and I will randomly select a winner one week from today.


Rachel said...

I went to a body modifications expo years ago... I was interested in the tattoos and piercings.. there was also displays on footbinding.. horrible horrible practice.. this picture is shocking, right. I am so glad I have no been subjected to such painful cultural practices!

Kristi said...

Wow, I had no idea what the results of footbinding actually looked like. This book does sound really interesting. I have enjoyed reading about different cultures. I do admit that I'm always slightly worried when I first pick one up that, caused by my own ignorance, I won't "get it."

klmickelsen at gmail dot com

Kate said...

Glad you enjoyed the book! The foot binding is so horrific. Wonderful review, as always...

Peony in Love is on my TBR list as well!

Hugh Jackman, huh? :)

She said...

Oh man. I'd never seen a picture of foot binding before, but thank you for opening my eyes! Oh dear! ;p

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Amanda said...

I feel a little sick after reading that. Good thing the book really isn't about foot binding!
It's funny, I feel exactly the opposite about these types of books, I love getting a peek into something so complete out of the normal of my life.

Oh, and those shoes are worth any discomfort!!

Ryan said...

My grandmother's mother had her feet bound. A sign of beauty for the rich ladies (poor people had to work in the field, and you can't do that if your feet are all effed up).

When they took the bindings off her mother's feet, according to my grandmother, the smell would be awful.

Kathy said...

Thanks for all the comments! I assumed that those of you who didn't leave your email address didn't want to be entered in the giveaway. The winner of my copy of Snow Flower (do you know how many times I've almost typed Snot Flower?) is Kristi from Kristi Loves Books! (You should check out her blog.)

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Marlene Detierro said...

I was so frightened, amazed and disturbed by the process of foot-binding that I went on line to see photographs of the perfect lilies and the clef created by binding the feet as described in the story.

A fascinating book I recommend reading.

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