Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

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The first 100 pages of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See in one word: Painful. We followed Lily through her own feet-binding process, and I felt my own feet squirm as I read of it.

I think there’s something about reading historical fiction that occurs in nineteenth century China that is always painful for me. I dislike the way women and girls are discounted, I don’t understand the traditions (seriously, crippling girls’ feet makes them more attractive?!), and I am often frustrated by my ignorance of place, food, status, and culture. That last point is the main reason I feel I should continue to read about Chinese history: there is so much I do not know.

Although I enjoyed learning about the culture and traditions, the novel did very little for me emotionally. I disliked Lily from her childhood, and I found few other characters to draw me in to the novel. There was one character I found complicated and interesting (Snow Flower) and by the end, although I felt frustrated with the story and with Lily, I felt there were pertinent issues relating to friendship and trust to consider and ponder.

Yet, I unfortunately found the writing stilted and boring, although many people have praised it as beautiful. Maybe that boredom came from the fact that I read the incredible Beloved by Toni Morrison immediately before this novel? I suspect I would have abandoned this novel from boredom if not for my in real life book club, which was meeting at my house.

Nevertheless, despite my lukewarm reaction to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I am glad that I read it. Viewing a fictionalized snapshot of nineteenth century China made me incredibly grateful for living where I do now. There are good issues raised about friendship and trust; betrayal; and, ultimately, a woman’s relationship to her husband, friends, and children. I’m sure many people will (and do) enjoy this book more than I did, so please don’t take my word for it.

Because I was hosting the book club in my home, I decided to find something edible from the book to feed to my guests, so I read the book looking for food. That made reading the book fun, too, and it saved me from utter boredom. I ended up making congee and deep-fried sugared taro root.

During a deadly typhoid epidemic, Lily feed her children only congee, a rice pudding. While those who ate the diseased animals died, Lily’s family survived. The congee I made had vegetables and chicken stock and it was quite good. I suspect Lily’s would have been a bit more boring, to say the least. Probably just rice and water. Boiled. For a long time.

Every summer when Lily and Snow Flower met in the village, they ate a special deep-fried sugared taro root desert. I’d never eaten taro root before, but it’s a potato-like tuber. I sliced the taro like thick French fries, fried them in oil, and then coated them in sugar. It was surprisingly tasty! Find links to the recipes on Rebecca’s Cooking Journal.

I guess that goes to show that for me, this “in real life” book club makes a book much more fun than just reading it myself, and not just because we had a fun discussion!

Since I didn’t love this book (note that I didn’t hate it either, it just didn’t do much for me), I found as many other reviews as I could find so you can get a second opinion. If I missed your review, let me know.

Other reviews: 1 more chapter; A Novel Menagerie; A Striped Armchair; American Bibliophile; Bending Bookshelf; Bloody Hell, It’s a Book Barrage!; Book Club Girl; Book Nut; Bookin’ It; Books for Breakfast; Books Lists Life; Dear Author; Devourer of Books ; Dolce Bellezza; Fyrefly Books’ Blog; Literate Housewife; Lotus Reads; Reading Adventure; Reading Matters; Sassymonkey Reads; Small World Reads; So Many Books, So Little TimeSome Reads; Stone Soup; The Bookworm – Naida; tiny reading room; Tif Talks Books

Reviewed on September 25, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Is it awful for me to admit that this one has had so much hype that I don’t trust it much? I don’t really like historical fiction, I don’t enjoy most books on Asian culture, and I worry that this would be very bland. Boring. Okay I know that makes me sound awful, but I’m just not interested enough in it to put it on my tbr list. Maybe I just haven’t read a glowing-enough review or something.

  • Amanda, SO MANY people (see reviews above and those in my book club) loved this book and thought it excellent. Some of the reviews say, “Everyone should read this book.” I agree that for me, it did nothing. I think lots of times these book club books get too much hype so yes, they’re disappointing for me. But then again, I’ve been reading so much I have plenty to compare it to! I guess if I hadn’t read the beautifully written Good Earth a few months ago I may not have been so disappointed.

  • I can’t help pointing out that you put Death Author for Dear Author blog 🙂 (just the name caught my eyes)
    This book is near the top of my tbr pile. I hope I’d like it more than you did.

  • I thought this one had a lot of flaws, but for me the setting made up for it. I found Peony in Love more enjoyable and fascinating, since the main character dies in it and half the book is about her afterlife! I don’t think Lisa See is a ‘must read’ author by any means…more a fluffy break when I need one.

  • Oh No, this book is up now for my book club and I have been plodding through it but definitely agree so far that I do not love it, and with so many amazing books in the world, why wade through this one? I think this is the hint I needed to move on to another one.

  • My book club read this one awhile back and we all loved it. I’ve never read anything else by Lisa See but I plan to at some point.

    I love how you chose foods from the book to make for your meeting. Very ambitious!

  • In a way, this seems like a book that is meant specifically for book clubs! I’m pretty sure this is one that will never come up at mine, however, as we seem to have fairly unconventional tastes when it comes to books.

    You’re right that I had only heard REALLY positive things about this book from others, but I must admit the basic gist did nothing for me so I’ve never sought it out. I am also woefully ignorant when it comes to my understanding/background knowledge on Asian cultures, but I’m going to hold out for a better book to rectify that! 😉 Thank you so much for the honest appraisal!

  • To Jackie: Since you love Amy Tan, you’ll love this!

    Rebecca: Truly, Lisa See is no comparison to Toni Morrison! We are quite on the same page. I did like Snow Flower a lot, though, not for the writing, it was secondary, but more because I really love reading about my heritage (I’m half Chinese).

    On book club choices, I think a lot of readers have a certain idea of what is “excellent” writing, which is on my view only good writing. To illustrate, I have two friends who I’ve been recommending books to. Of course I first recommend them the ones I loved. The verdict: they thought them boring. Now I then began recommending them only the books I liked (but not loved). Those that to me are not very literary but are just easy, enjoyable reads, like this one. And ta-daa.. they love them!

    Anyway, I really liked Snow Flower, also Peony in Love, and I think it really appeals to the common reader (which, sometimes, I am, too!). But, no, it doesn’t make my list for excellent books. Just good (definitely not bad!), but not exactly excellent.

  • After hearing about this one for years, one day I decided it was shameful that I knew next to nothing about it — or Lisa See, for that matter! So I grabbed a copy of Snow Flower And the Secret Fan… and promptly put it on my bookshelf, where it’s been ever since! I have a feeling I’m going to share your thoughts on it, but I’ll give it a try. One of these days. 🙂

  • I had to go back and read my own review because all I could remember was the foot binding! I knew I enjoyed it but even reading my review I don’t really remember why. Of course, I have the worst memory ever of books mere days after finishing so I am untrustworthy.

    I love that you made the food!

  • It’s amazing how people can read the same book and have completely different opinions on it! Maybe that’s why I like hearing all those opinions.

    I, personally, loved this book. I did read this book shortly after giving birth to my daughter and the book made me really think about mother/daughter relationships…and most of all what that love means.

    The foot binding scene was awful and very memorable. However, we can argue that some of things that people do to their bodies now to look good is awful. The main difference is that we have drugs to help with the pain.

  • Eva, I tried to keep in mind this book as a “fluffy” read. But the setting didn’t do as much for me, unfortunately. The premise of Peony in Love sounds interesting!

    Mary, some people really liked it! I thought it picked up after page 100.

    Stephanie, finding the foods to make made it fun for me!!

    Jackie, you might like it — my reaction was probably similar to yours after you read all those Bookers: you just noticed there was a quality difference so it’s hard to compare.

    Steph, it was a good book club book because there were plenty of characters and plot elements to discuss. I probably wouldn’t have read it on my own.

    Misfit, yeah, I think those raving saw something I didn’t. ah well.

    claire, yes, I think my reaction definintely had something to do with having read Morrison just before. I was emotionally drained from Beloved and there was nothing emotionally engaging for me in this book. Maybe if I’d given more time in between I’d have found the setting or something else intriguing.

    I’m glad you like it. Maybe I’ll try Lisa See again when I’m in a mood for something like this again.

    Meg, I’m apparently the minority, so don’t necessarily take my word for it.

    Lisa, I definitely think the foot binding scenes were most memorable!! I am glad you enjoyed it. And yes, the food was fun.

    Tracie Yule, Good point about what we do to our bodies. It makes it more universal to think of it that way! Again, I’m glad you liked the book. It is heartening that we can each find a book we love.

  • Thank you for confirming what I suspected about this book. I’ve been seeing it praised and praised as not just a good read, but an “everyone must read you will loooove it” kind of book, and I’ve been skeptical. I’ve had the impression that it’s a book about something interesting, but that the book itself is just ordinary.

    I love Claire’s point about “book club” books. I’ve found that to be true as well. In my experience, there’s a certain formula to books like this that are popular with book clubs. If you’re in the mood for that formula (and I sometimes am), there are plenty of good books for it, but, to me, they’re all pretty much interchangable. Just choose the one with the setting that sounds best.

  • Teresa, I’ve learned that I never trust anyone who says “everyone must read this book” 🙂 We all have different tastes. I’d definitely say this is an ordinary book. A book club book. It didn’t do anything for me this time around, but if I read at a different point I may enjoy it significantly more!

    Dawn, It make the meeting fun!

  • I don’t think much of historical fiction, and sorry to say, the cover of this book looks particularly vile, but the recipes sound great, especially that deep-fried sugary thing. Mm, I love anything deep-fried and sugary 😀 (no sarcasm intended, I promise)

  • Kathy, Most people have a good experience with it, it just wasn’t for me so much.

    Tuesday, I understood.:) I personally dislike pink covers because they scare me. (I read a different cover, by the way, that’s just the image I found.) I personally like historical fiction very much, but yes, cooking the recipes made it fun!! Yummy it was.

  • I enjoyed this novel. My sister married a man from China and their first daughter was born around the time I read it. It hit home for me, that’s for sure.

    I kept wiggling my feet and toes throughout the foot binding process. I can’t imagine having to do that. Thank God my nieces won’t.

  • I’ve reviewed this book too and think I enjoyed it more than you did. Definitely not one of my favorites though! BTW, I’ve added the link to my review. If you are interested, here’s the link to mine . . . . . . You can also link back to another review that I’ve included some extra info on foot binding with I think a link to an article as to the reasonings behind this cultural tradition. It’s VERY interesting and definitely makes me thankful for where and when I currently live!!

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