It’s great when a book can transcend your pre-conceptions. I love historical fiction about woman, but if you had asked did I want to read a book about women’s lives in nineteenth-century China, I would have said, “Probably not.” However, I read a great review of this book by my online friend, writer Katrina Stonoff, so I decided to give it a try.
I’m glad I did, as Lisa See has done a wonderful job of evoking the lives of women who lived a completely restricted and enclosed existence. The story begins when the narrator, Lily, is almost old enough to have her feet bound — and I can tell you that whatever you’ve heard about this practice in the past is nothing compared to the vivid description of a girl actually going through it. If you have a six-year-old daughter, as I do, it’s almost painful to read this part of the novel, in which “mother love” is expressed through the brutal mutilation of her daughter’s body.
Lily is not an entirely sympathetic or likable character, yet the reader is drawn into her mind and her world. The most important relationship of Lily’s life is her arranged friendship with Snow Flower and their correspondence through nu shu, the secret writing taught only to women. Lily’s choices have disastrous consequences for that friendship and for Snow Flower, yet we empathize with Lily as well as with Snow Flower, recognizing how limited women’s choices were in that place and time. I highly recommend this compelling novel.