In nineteenth - century China, when wives and daughter 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 relfect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The tow find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book! In a way, it was what I expected it to be: an in-depth view of an ancient and foreign relationship between two women. But the juice was in the details as well as the myriad topics it deal with. The story was laced with themes of hierarchy, antiquated rituals, female-male relationships, and cultural propriety. Lily's relationship with Snow Flower was a roller-coaster from the beginning, which often resulted in my not knowing exactly how I felt about Lily's character.
In a time when the culture was not conductive to strong female relationships, Lily and Snow Flower's friendship truly endured. Don't get me wrong: I read the part where Lily put all of Snow Flower's business out in the street too. But, what friendship doesn't come with its share of ups and downs? In the beginning, Lily idolized her new friend, trying her best to impress her. When she found out that Snow Flower was actually poor, you see her struggling with her emotions. Ultimately she settled on confusion, confused as to why her good friend would lie to her. I felt close to Lily at that moment, because that confusion seemed so real, and so appropriate for the friendship the two girls had. When you expect full disclosure from your friends, a lie like this can seem so unnecessary and unwarranted.
If young-Lily was my favorite character, Lady Lu - Lily was my least favorite. Granted, it was not Lily's fault that her mother-in-law restricted her access to Snow Flower in the early years of her marriage. My biggest gripe is the way she reacted to Snow Flower's appeals for friendship while she went through her loveless and disgraceful marriage. As the new Lady Lu, Lily completely forgot how to be a friend. She was selfish and forgot that pity did not equal friendship. I constantly felt that Lily was looking down her nose at Snow Flower, especially when she could not conceive or when Snow Flower spoke of "bed business" with her husband. Lily's new station in life dragged her away from the things that were most important to her development, including her laotong. When Snow Flower's heart was too heavy for the loneliness and she she decided to take on Sworn Sisters, Lily's reaction was ghastly and it only drove them further apart. It was not until Snow Flower was on her deathbed that Lily realized how important her friend was to her, and how wicked she had truly been.
One of my favorite attributes of this novel was the way writing and symbolism were praised by the author and the characters. In Snow Flower, the prose created intracacies in every circumstance, from the rituals to the songs and poems. Sorrow seemed sadder, and joy seemed happier in this book. Every paragraph seemed monumental, open for inspection and comprehension by all characters. And, at least when they were growing up, every situation was an opportunity to learn. One of my favorite quotes was from the loathed Madame Wang:
"You may be desperate, but never let anyone see you as anything less than a cultivated woman." p 128It is hard to say anything negative about this book. Any changes would likely take away from the emotions generated by the story. I only wonder what would have happened if we would have known both sides of the story. It would have been interesting for the chapters to alternate between Snow Flower's and Lily's perspectives from the beginning. Getting both sides of the story might have answered questions that I had earlier in the book, without having to wait for Snow Flower's death ceremonies. When it comes down to it, this book is extremely well written and told, with few (if any) unanswered questions left. I would not be surprised if I found myself delving into more Lisa See in the near future.