In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu (“women’s writing”). Some girls were paired with laotongs, “old sames,” in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become “old sames” at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Comment: I got this book at a used books bookstore two years ago. I had heard good things about the author's work and as soon as I saw the book - in perfect conditions, should I say - I immediately saved it and bought it. I didn't know the story but the author's name was enough to convince me. Despite that, it has been waiting and waiting until this month where I finally added it to my reading list.
This is the story of Lily, a young Chinese girl who is destined to have a great future but to have that she will endure pain and sorrow and learn all the lessons only time can teach.
Lily lives during a time where respectful and decent girls had their feet bound to make them small and more attractive to possible husbands. She comes from a poor family but she is given the chance to enter a lifelong friendship with Snow Flower, a girl from a richer region and thus making her more interesting as a wife.
This is a story about customs, preconceived ideas, indecision between what's right and what's expected and the idea that there are things more important than appearances. But can Lily be the person everyone thinks she will end up being?
I was quite impressed with this novel. It's not easy to read when one compares to our own customs and way of life. It almost looks unbearable and tragic to think people used to believe that foot binding would make someone look more beautiful, especially if we think about our contemporary societies. I guess that, in one way, this was what stayed with me the longest...how something was considered important when people didn't have all the knowledge we do now and used that as a rule for something that shouldn't be that important.
The story is told from Lily's POV and some things aren't shown to us, but when Lily knows or learns it, we do to. I liked Lily as a narrator but it becomes obvious Lily isn't the most expressive of people and by her descriptions of her daily life and the difficulties she meets and deals with we realize she is the type of person to follow the rules in general. I usually like people/characters like her because to me the purpose isn't to see them change radically, but to be surprised by good things and how that can make them sweeter or stronger. In Lily's case, her need to be recognized by her value and "good deeds", even if against what common sense dictates, make her sometimes too rigid. I understand why and how the author wanted to make her the focus so we could judge everyone else according to her, while Lily isn't perfect herself. But often her attitude seemed superficial and I felt like telling her to smile more, to embrace the good things she had, even if to her they weren't many, or at least I wanted to see her be glad she was having all those feelings. But she was too narrow in some of her thinking.
Of course all this is connected with the plot and how her life long friendship with Snow Flower, someone to balance her, but who has different feelings, is living a different situation in terms of social context... I liked the relationship of the two, how close they were, and how beautifier some things are in a real friendship but the main purpose of this book is too evidence how apart people can be when they let their personal feelings interfere with things out of their control. I can't help thinking the pot could have been much happier and positive if only! But the point is to highlight the bad things, I think. When you simply bow to the pressure of living in a time and place where you had no rights. I think that if one can put aside all the rich historical aspects, the feminist in any woman would scream at what happening to those girls...
All in all, this was a great novel, it makes you think and wonder what would we do but the context is so far apart from anything we are used in our occidental and contemporary society that it almost reads like a fantasy. But it was a reality, it was part of China's History as a country and a society and that is shocking how people simply believed in things today we can't accept as anything but torture.
I'll be thinking about the plot a lot, because some situations were avoidable, but the goal here to to show us one possible outcome of what it really meant to be a free spirit in dire circumstances and not being able to simply move along....