Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See
Publisher: Random House, Inc
Kindle ASIN: B000FCK71U
Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction/Culture


In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared 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 deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has been tucked within my reading list for several years now. I am ashamed of that fact, as I feel it deserves much more attention than I initially gave it.

“Seventy-five years have gone by, and I still remember the feel of the mud between my toes, the rush of water over my feet, the cold against my skin. Beautiful Moon and I were free in a way that we would never be again.”

Lily is a young girl being raised among poverty in 19th century China. When she is presented with the opportunity to be paired with a laotong (old same) she is excited at the prospect of a lifelong friend, Snow Flower. For years they will exchange fans containing secret letters written in Nu Shu, a language that has been developed by Chinese women to carry their messages safe from the eyes of men. These letters will become part of a story full of happiness, sadness, and all facets of life. But when a misunderstanding arises and mistakes are made, all that Lily loves becomes compromised. Will this friendship come to a tragic end or survive the test of time?

This is an exceptional title that it is difficult to review in full because it is sure to be a truly unique experience for the individual. Since this was a journey laden with complex feelings for myself, I am going focus only that aspect for purpose of this review. It is my goal to encourage you to explore this title and develop your own thoughts.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was much more challenging than I could have ever predicted. This is a culturally saturated read that explores some facets that are hard to digest.  The practice of foot binding being one. I want to openly state right now that there were scenes in relation to the practice of binding that made my stomach turn and that is no easy feat. But I feel that the author’s ability to depict these moments so graphically is significant in regards to fostering a true understanding within the reader. This is a barbaric ritual that poses life threatening risks and left many women crippled. The intensity of See’s description solicits a very appropriate feeling that is necessary.

“They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture.”

Narrated with elegant prose, this is a story that effortlessly evokes emotions ranging from empathy to frustration and finally some semblance of understanding but not exactly acceptance. It is difficult to acknowledge just how trivialized women were within the Chinese cultural and society during the setting of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The amount of emphasis placed directly on outward “beauty” is infuriating. The author has represents these aspects in such a manner that it is easy to understand why having a laotong would be invaluable for our narrator.

“She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home.”

See provides us with something remarkable that stands to be indisputable evidence of the amount of time and care that must have went into the research and composure of Lily’s story. Arresting and tragically haunting, this is a book to be devoured and savored slowly. Highest recommendation to all who seek memorable historical fiction that is deliciously rich in culture.

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44 thoughts on “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

  1. I really liked this book.
    Yes, the foot binding scenes are hard to read. I think it’s more disturbing to read it versus other gory scenes since foot binding happens to real people (women) whereas other scenes are likely to be pure fiction.
    I’ve liked a few of her other books but this one the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am going to be exploring more of her work. This was my first encounter and I was very impressed. I agree that the harsh reality behind the bindings make it even more difficult to read. So brutal and inhumane 😦 Do you have another of her books that you might recommend I tackle next?


      1. I liked China Dolls a lot, too. I read the two Shanghai Girls. I liked the second one better than the first (based on goodreads).
        I also read Dragon Bones and rated high but I don’t remember reading it lol (the problem with going through so many books, I guess).

        I tried her latest and couldn’t get into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right: this does sound like an excellent book and right up my alley. I love historical fiction reads set in cultures I’m not all that familiar with… And the story sounds truly beautiful. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have wanted to watch the movie for the longest time, and as I said before, I didn’t realize it was based on a book until I saw,you mention it here on your blog. Thanks for the wonderful review. I want to read this before seeing the movie. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow… historical fiction, in my mind, can be some of the most impactful books ever. Sure, there’s fiction to consider alongside fact but that fiction always allows the reader to actually become interested in the fact more.
    This one sounds like a must read and it’s great that you read and reviewed this- otherwise I doubt I would have heard about this book! Fabulous, convincing review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am giving this full endorsement 😉 It is loaded with culture. The binding is a tough bit to read, but it really drives home how women were undervalued and the lengths that were taken to promote this “idea” of beauty. It is a fab read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review! I have been trying to write my review for this book for several months and I haven’t been able to get the words together for it. You did a great job addressing the horrors combined with the beautiful and provocative writing. Personally, I found all the female-focused power dynamics to be incredibly fascinating. I am not certain in the end who I am more frustrated with, Snow Flower or Lily, for how their relationship ended up working out. It’s heartbreaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey! Look! Danielle got through a historical fiction and absolutely loved it!! 😛 I guess it really is a mood thing hhahaha This review definitely made me want to read this title, especially cause I’ve been a little too much in the WWII historical fictions this year, so far. 😀 Speaking of foot binding, I’ve seen documentaries back in high school where there are some taboo practices where they make their necks longer too. And.. well.. since it wasn’t through a book that I discovered this but rather.. the good ol’ visual format, I never forgot how crazy and painful it all looked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah I believe the Kayan use neck rings. I have read about this practice in Nat Geo I believe (or maybe it was a documentary). There are definitely some cultural practices that are terrifying and present many life threatening dangers in existence! This is a heavy but also beautiful read. See’s writing is very immersive 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great review. This is one I really want to read as well. As for the foot binding, the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article on it’s website about it a couple years ago. They showed photos of an old lady’s feet that were bound when she was younger. It looked like she went through a painful process.

    Liked by 1 person

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