When Lily is seven years old, a diviner comes to visit her household and realizes how perfect her feet are–they will make perfect lilies when bound and will be the source of great fortune in her life. On his next visit he brings a matchmaker–not to find a husband–but rather a laotong, a contractual friendship with a “old same” which will last a lifetime and be more powerful and important than perhaps even her marriage. Her “old same” laotong is to be a wealthy and refined girl of the same age, Snow Flower.
Lily and Snow Flower become fast friends, despite the many differences between them–especially Snow Flower’s higher social status. When they are together their bond is strong even in the most intimate ways. When they are apart, they write messages back to one another on a fan in the secret language of women–nu shu. The story follows the joys and pains of their lives through marriage and childbirth, but a terrible misunderstanding threatens to end their sacred friendship. This story is about love, happiness, friendship, sorrow, and forgiveness.
Alright–down to the nitty gritty. :) The story is told from Lily’s point of view as an elderly woman. Because the events are happening in hindsight rather than in real time, it felt as though the events were simply glossed over. In 258 pages, Lisa See writes the lives of these women over roughly 50+ years. Plain and simple, I thought the book was too short. This is a beautiful story, but I wasn’t sucked into it mostly because their wasn’t enough there to really pull out the emotion. While I got to know these women and really began to care about them and their relationship, I would liked to have seen a deeper study their lives, emotions, etc. But, maybe this is a cultural thing?
What I really enjoyed about the book was a look into nineteenth-century rural China. The practice of footbinding is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. It amazes me that an act such as this can determine a woman’s worth–if her feet are perfectly bound then she can possibly secure a better marriage. Also, the art of nu shu was also very interesting–this woman’s language was essentially kept secret from men for centuries. There are so many customs and rituals explained in the novel that really brought this novel to life. At the end of my copy there is a narrative of See’s journey and research while writing this book, which in many ways was more interesting than the book itself. I really enjoyed the extras in this book–China has such a rich history that I don’t know very much about.
Do I recommend the book? Yes. Most reviews I have read are very positive–and I liked this book as well, I just wanted more. The story is a strong one, but what I love about reading is when a book can speak to my emotional side and I didn’t get that. I will say, though, when I got to the end I realized that I want to read See’s next book, Peony in Love–so that says something, right?