Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Lisa See
In the first part of the book, describing the narrator Lily's girlhood, there are interesting discussions of the economic aspects of the marriage market. In fact, the calculations that family members make as to the economic (monetary and otherwise) value of the children are complex and explicit. This is certainly very different from our society, where it is downright taboo to think of economic value of one's children -- indeed, there is some discomfort even with thinking of unrelated people that way. Nonetheless, sociologists argue that we do (tacitly), I believe. One source of emotional pain for Lily is her uncertainty as to whether her mother thinks of her only in terms of money. It's hard to say, from this evidence alone, whether relationships in her family are unusually callous by the standards of her society.

This brings me to reflect that Lisa See obviously did a lot of research for this book (she talks about some of it in her afterword). She's determined to tell her readers what she learned. This, however, translates awkwardly to the format of a novel. She must have her lectures on Confucianism and women's customs delivered by her first-person narrator -- but who is the narrator supposed to be speaking to? The first chapter says, "I am writing these pages for those who reside in the afterworld.... Let my words explain my actions to my ancestors, to my husband, but most of all to Snow Flower..." Thus, there is a strong whiff of "As you know, Bob" to passages like "I... knew [that] the difference between nei — the inner realm of the home — and wai — the outer realm of men — lay at the very heart of Confucian society" and so on for another paragraph.

But the problem of explaining too much doesn't stop there. See also has Lily state the emotions she was feeling at the time of the events she narrates, and there's a lot of psychological analysis. It's difficult for this sort of thing to ring true. But more, explanations deaden the portrayal of the characters, preventing them from "living" on their own. Not that naturalism is the only possible way of writing, but See obviously wants the reader to form an emotional connection with the characters, which her style thwarts initially. I somewhat changed my opinion on that by the end of the book, but I continue to think that it's a book that provides more rewards from being pondered about than from grabbing the reader immediately.

I do think that, in spite of the somewhat simple way it's presented, there's sufficient material here for multiple discussions. If I can be broad and general: Lily's love for Snow Flower fits rather well with modern Western notions of homosexuality, but the way it's expressed, obviously, doesn't. There's a bifurcation in the notion of universal psychology, culturally-bound manifestations of it. And I was wondering -- did the language of nu shu let Lily down in understanding the physical passion she felt for Snow Flower (and never for her husband), as it provided an accepted, but ultimately all too limited, way of expressing her emotions? Although talk of the lustfulness of men is acceptable among women, I saw no indication that there was any conventional way of saying that women might have such feelings too. Lily was taken aback by her aunt saying that she enjoyed "bed business"; it's apparently not conventional to say so.

But the real circumstances of life in this society are all about hierarchy, hierarchy, hierarchy; and repression is passed down from one level to another, and tyranny is expected. There are extremely few signs of understanding and sympathy between people at different levels of the ranking; even basic kindness is limited. The only sympathy and love is between people of equal rank, and that's why matched relationships of laotong and sworn sisterhoods are important -- the women involved have to be not only the same age and marital state, but equal in social position. Note how, when Lily is angry at Snow Flower, she immediately begins using her superior status as a weapon.

Well, not a bad book at all!