Well, she’s no Amy Tan.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
In turn-of-the-20th-Century rural China, two young girls become bonded for life by the laotong contract. Whatever friends, spouses, blood sisters, or mothers-in-law may pass through their lives they are sworn to remain soulmates, communicating via messages in secret “women’s writing” carried between the two towns.
The blurb tries to make it sound like there’s more to the novel than this, but this is really it. The paltry frame upon which numerous history and sociology lessons are hung.
The thing that bums me out about this novel is that it could have been so good. The basic premise is one that has worked countless times: two very different people with an emotional bond desperately trying to hang onto each other in a world designed to keep them apart. If the factual information on footbinding and class systems had been artfully woven into a genuine story with fully-realized characters who could have had the reflections and realizations that were important for the author to convey. Instead, there are overlong passages that clinically describe facets of Chinese culture/practices. Certain scenes seem to occur only because the author had a real-world anecdote she wanted to include. There are thinly-veiled political statements that seem inauthentic to the characters and their circumstances. Lisa See had some drums to bang, and she beat them to bits.
The foreshadowing is obvious, the main character reads like a different woman from scene to scene (here sassy, here blindly obedient, here flinty), and the “lessons” are run into the ground.
As a female Chinese-American writer, I imagine Lisa See gets compared to Amy Tan a lot. She’s probably sick of it. Still, if I wrote a novel about boy wizards I’d just have to suck it up when J.K. Rowling came up, wouldn’t I? Tan is poetic where See is pedantic. Even the title: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. That’s a dumb title. A title for a children’s book. The words are pretty and it might even sound mysterious at first, but upon reading the book one finds it is just a laundry list of the things inside. Her other titles are similarly unimaginative: Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls. Compare that to Tan’s titles that obliquely reference the contemporary subject matter through the lens of Chinese myth or legend: The Kitchen God’s Wife, Saving Fish from Drowning, The Hundred Secret Senses. I would recommend any of Tan’s books that I’ve read before this novel. I got Ready Player One-levels sick of the term “golden lilies” and reading about how people swayed about on them. Expand your capacity for imagery or GTFO.
What bothers me most of all is that nowhere on the long road to publication did anyone tell See that this novel wasn’t good. It could have been salvaged.