Snow Flower and the Secret Sauce

Okay, I will admit that the title of this post has nothing to do with anything. I just like imagining this novel set in a Chinese restaurant. (I find the idea of secret sauces very amusing for some reason. Maybe because my first job was at a deli where they slathered every sandwich with something openly named “secret goo.”)

Anyway, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See totally horrified me. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I’m apparently an ignorant doofus. I never knew what foot-binding actually was.

I mean, sure, I’d heard of it. The Chinese want their women to have tiny little feet. Okay, seems weird, but we all have our fetishes. I pictured cute little tootsies bundled in those cloth bandages that athletes wrap around their ankles before a game.

Well, that’s not what it is. If you happen to be an ignorant doofus like me, I would highly recommend that you read about foot-binding. I can’t even watch Mulan anymore, this whole thing makes me so sick.

Okay, moving on. I think this book presents a nice portrait of nineteenth-century China. It’s one of those learn-something novels, good in a “If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll love Snow Flower and the Secret Fan!” type of way. I wouldn’t call the writing exceptional, but then (like Memoirs) this book is more about plot and setting than gorgeous language.

What I found most notable is how this book took the standard themes of contemporary bestselling literary fiction and kicked them up a notch. Unsurprisingly, Snow Flower features a central female character (Lily) and focuses on the lives and feelings of China’s cloistered and unappreciated female population. The main relationship in the novel is that between Lily and a woman named Snow Flower; the two are chosen to be laotongs — “old sames,” lifelong friends — at the age of seven.

Here’s where the notch-kicking comes in. Not only are Lily and Snow Flower bosom buddies, but their special female relationship is described as more important than even marriage:

“A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose—to have sons.” (43)

Snow Flower was my old same for life. I had a greater and deeper love for her than I could ever feel for the person who was my husband. (119)

Other bestselling literary novels imply that female friendship is vitally sustaining, but I can’t think of another book that explicitly states that it is the truest of loves. While it makes complete sense that women of 19th century China would have stronger emotional relationships with other women than they would with men, it still begs the question why so many books like this are popular now. We live in an age when men and women can be companions and equals in every way. So it’s curious that women are reading books that celebrate a time when that wasn’t possible, books that claim that romantic love is less important and fulfilling than friendship. I suspect that some women flock to these stories because their spouses are louts — because friendship is indeed the source of their greatest emotional sustenance. But do they really believe that friendship is more important than marriage, or are they just trying to make themselves feel better about their husbands’ emotional distance? Like reading a romance novel, is reading a “female friendship” novel just another coping mechanism?

And what is it about female friendship that readers seem to find so endlessly compelling? The last sentence in the book jacket description says the novel “delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendships.” I laughed when I read that, but could it be true? My friendships with other women are not mysterious. They are not difficult or hysterical. But then, if this adventure through bestselling books has revealed anything about me as a person, it is that I have little in common with the average female reader. So perhaps I am the wrong person to ask about this.

There were a couple of departures from your standard literary themes/content that I thought I should mention. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan doesn’t celebrate the mother-daughter bond — Lily’s mother is actually a sort of villain. More intriguing, Lily and Snow Flower share an erotic moment as teenage girls. In my mind this is the next logical step after one declares “I had a greater and deeper love for her than I could ever feel for the person who was my husband,” but the tender exchange never blossoms into anything explicitly sexual. Is Lisa See suggesting that there is romantic/sexual potential between women who have such powerful emotional bonds? Or are we to take Lily and Snow Flower’s caresses as nothing but innocent experimentation? I’m really not sure. There were certain moments in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood that raised the same questions for me. I can’t tell if these authors are deliberately flirting with these issues or if they think there is nothing unusual about presumably heterosexual women touching their naked female friends. I would think, past puberty, such behavior would not be common…but again, maybe I’m wrong.

But enough about hot girl-girl action that never materializes. Overall this is a pretty interesting book, and if you love stories about female friendship, you’ll probably really dig it. Pick up a copy, head to your favorite Chinese restaurant, and enjoy the book over a steaming platter of Snow Flower in Secret Sauce. But just watch out for those foot-binding scenes.

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