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Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Audiobook)

22 Jul

Genre: Historical fiction, Women’s fiction

Publisher: Isis Audiobooks

Pub date: 18 July 2001

Source: Personal copy

Format: Audiobook

Narrator: Di Langford

Length: 10 hours 53 minutes


In 19th century China, seven-year-old Lily is paired with Snow Flower as her old same (laotang) in a bond of friendship that will last all their lives. This laotong friendship is considered stronger than marriage vows. Over the years, the girls use nu shu (secret women’s writing) to share their lives with each other.

They provide support for each other through all their difficulties and share each others happiness. Many years later, a misunderstanding arises and their friendship suffers. Lily tells the story of her love for her laotang Snow Flower when she is 80 years old and is in her “Sitting Quietly” days.


The story of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a complex one and spans many decades of Lily’s life. When Lily looks back at her life at 80, we hear her regret and her apology for having let a misunderstanding come between her and her laotong.

Right from the first time the girls meet, we get to see how different they are in many ways: Snow Flower is inquisitive and bold while Lily is shy and bound by tradition. And this is something we see over and over again through the story. Lily wraps herself up in the comfort and safety of traditions. She doesn’t question the rules that bind her to her place as a woman. The only time we see her break the rules is when she is told she can no longer meet Snow Flower.

I found Lily really hard to like. In a way, she was a very lucky woman and yet judged everyone including her loatong harshly and through the narrow eyes of tradition.

One of the most important parts in the book is the one about foot-binding. See gives us a no-hold-barred account of the practice when Lily and her cousin and Snow Flower have their feet bound. For obvious reasons, this part is something that will stay with me a long time.

Having her feet tied and bones broken is the only way a girl can make a good marriage and her place in the world depends on how deformed the feet are. This cruel and deforming practice creates a woman’s golden lilies.

I think of myself as a toughie when it comes to gruesome descriptions and blood and gore. But the descriptions of the inhuman practice of foot binding which included breaking the bones and letting them reset was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever read (listened to). It is beyond my comprehension how a foot deformed so painfully can be such a source of pleasure and sexual excitement.

At the heart of it, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of women’s friendships. Denied any role in the world outside their homes, women turned to each other to provide strength and sanity. As daughters of the house, they were more a burden and would have to be fed and sent away to the husband’s house. A woman’s worth was first determined by the size of her feet and her ability to be obedient. Once she got married her worth and position in the home was intricately bound to her ability to have sons.

The laotong relationships and sworn sisterhoods along with the secret women’s writing were the most important crutches for women in those days.

The story is also about Lily’s lifelong hunt for love and about learning to love. From a young girl who was desperate for her mother’s love and approval, Lily grows into a hard woman who gives her love grudgingly. At 80, looking back at her life, she is candid about her shortcomings and tries to make some reparations before she goes to the next world.

The audiobook: I loved hearing this in audio. See’s writing is vivid and strong and Di Langford’s narration brings 19th century China to life. I didn’t want my drive my to end so that I could hear more of the story.

One small quibble is that in some places the gaps between sentences was too short and in others a little too long, which occasionally made for bumpy pacing.

Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in Chinese culture and history. Powerful story about women’s strengths and their friendships.

Rating: 4.5*

*See my Rating policy

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