Recap: As a less than fortunate 7-year-old living in 19th century China, all Lily wants is to become close to a group of “sworn sisters” — or best friends — and marry well. Seven is not typically the time when you think of marrying, but it is for Lily and her family, who live in a remote Hunan county. But everything changes when a matchmaker tells her family that Lily’s feet — the truest sign of beauty, luck, and wealth — can not only lead to a marriage into a rich family, but a “laotong,” or “just same.” A “laotong” is a best friend with whom one forms a much deeper relationship than she ever could with a group of “sworn sisters.”
That’s when Lily meets Snow Flower. The two vow to be best friends in the form of a contract written on a secret fan. Over several decades, Lily and Snow Flower grow to be as close as two people can get. They share secret notes and letters on that same fan throughout the years. They marry. They have children. But Lily produces a number of sons and marries well, while Snow Flower produces stillborns, weak sons, and daughters. She marries a butcher — the lowest of the low, and does not fair well.
With a friendship as long and deep as theirs, it seems unfathomable that anything could break it, but the secrets run deeper than Lily knows. And in the end, the novel — written in first person — becomes an apology note.
Analysis: Though it’s set in China in the 1800’s and devotes a portion of the novel to the Taiping Rebellion, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about a real female friendship. In Lily, we see the friend who tries to care, tries not to judge, but in the end, shows selfishness. In Snow Flower, we see the friend who tries to hide her secrets out of shame and holds onto that passivity throughout her life.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a testament to the ways a relationship between two women can change over the years. Little girls, little problems; big girls, big problems, and those problems can have a devastating effect on a friendship. Lisa See’s themes here are similar to those she writes about in Shanghai Girls, but they run just as deep. The end is heartbreaking, but as a woman, it’s completely relatable, making See’s first bestseller an excruciating, but exhilarating tale.
MVP: Lily. Both Lily and Snow Flower demonstrate flaw after flaw throughout the novel. But Lily finally comes to terms with what’s happened between them. She apologizes and makes up for it as best as she can. It takes a lot of strength to persevere through what Lily has, but she does it with elegance.