It is difficult to imagine how a novel that deals with the sterile formality of relationships in 19th-century China could also bring to light the poignant tale of two young girls from very different backgrounds who build a friendship that exceeds even their love for their own families. In her mesmerizing novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See deftly accomplishes this task.

Madame Wang, matchmaker extraordinaire, arrives one day at the home of young Lily in the village of Puwei. Though Lily comes from a family of poor farmers, Madame Wang senses her potential, which lies primarily in her impeccably formed feet seven-centimeter-long golden lilies—which are the key to marrying into a wealthy family. Lily is presented the rare opportunity to enter into a relationship with a laotong, or old same, a match with another girl considered as significant as a good marriage. In this case, Lily is paired with Snow Flower, who lives with her upper-class family in Tongkou village. Madame Wang gives Lily a fan which bears a secret language developed by the women of Hunan Province as a means of communicating in spite of their isolation. Lily and Snow Flower use this secret writing to send messages to one another at significant points in their lives.

See explicitly depicts the horrors of foot-binding and the grand ceremony with which relationships are cemented. The journey of the two girls—one married into a wealthy family, one promised to a less than regal butcher—is cinematic in scope and touching in execution as the two old sames seek to weather the many storms that shake their friendship. See offers delicate insight into the private world of women whose lives are in so many ways an object of public display.

Siobhan O'Leary has traveled extensively in China.

 

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