#18 ~ Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

April 18, 2007 at 3:34 am | Posted in Books, Culture, My Life with Books, Reading | 4 Comments
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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an amazing book about the lives of women in 16th century China. I selected the book for this very reason. I have two Chinese/American nieces and I wanted to learn more about the culture that has been permanently joined with my family. I am so very glad that I did. I enjoyed every moment reading this book. I hated to put it down.This is the story of Lily, a young girl born to a lower middle-class family. In her society, male children were prized above all other treasures in life. In fact, a mother’s worth is dependent upon them. A female child was seen as a dead branch. All of the time, energy, and resources used to raise a daughter are “wasted,” because her husband’s family will reap the rewards. Although Lily’s family was prosperous enough that the women did not have to work (that their feet could be bound, which very much limited their physical abilities), her outlook in life was not exciting. When Lily’s mother contacted a local soothsayer about the best time to bind Lily’s feet, he noticed a special quality to Lily and made a match between the family and a matchmaker from a much larger and more prosperous area. Assuming that Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” that the matchmaker believed were possible, Lily could be married to wealthy family. This relationship would serve to prosper Lily’s family as well. Although everyone hoped for a good match, Lily was also punished for the additional financial burden that went along with her upward mobility. Lily also seemed so special that the matchmaker proposed a “old same” match for Lily. If she could find an “old same” for Lily, this would add to her value as a wife. Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly. The most basic and important are the girls’ birth month, day, and year. It is through this relationship that Lily first meets and then grows to love Snow Flower.

At the heart of this book is the quest for love and survival in a world where both are elusive. Lily’s mother was a cold-hearted woman who cared only for her two sons. Lily attempts to be obedient and pleasing to this woman in every way she can. Although tender moments seem to be shared during Lily’s foot binding, her mother sees her only as a liability. She does not rejoice in her daughter’s potential or even in the extra prosperity it will bring her own household. Instead, she punishes her daughter for the extra money that the family must spend on her behalf. Survival is even harder for a woman to attain. Although foot binding is essential to be matched in marriage, the process can prove deadly. Assuming that a young woman survives to marry, her husband, his family, and especially his mother own her outright. Little was done or said on a woman’s behalf to stop abuse. If a young woman survived her foot binding, she had to live the remainder of her life physically impaired. If an emergency took place, this handicap imposed by society through the hands of the girls’ family made it almost impossible to escape on foot.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an intriguing book. Although a beautiful love story between two friends, this book gave me cause to think about the society in which I live. The concept behind foot binding and being inadequate in all ways because I am a woman has never entered my mind. Sure, there are situations were it may be more advantageous to be a man, but never once have I been made to feel like a “dead branch” by anyone. I have received a good education and have the opportunity to make my own way in this world. I can’t imagine being physically handicapped by my family in order to meet society’s demands for beauty and acceptability. That magic sway in their hips as they walked those so aroused men meant that they couldn’t leave; they didn’t have the stamina to implement change, and they had no choice but live a life of obedience and subservience.

Lily’s only true source of comfort is her relationship with Snow Flower. Although she found her married life and mother-in-law a much more pleasant experience than most women she knew, she prized Snow Flower above it all. When the girls first meet in the company of their matchmaker, they vow to be true to each other to the death. In her culture, the relationship between two old sames was meant to be stronger and more intimate than a marital relationship. In fact, when sleeping under one household, the husband was to sleep elsewhere to allow the women to sleep together. If a woman was not lucky enough to be matched with an old same, women could not hope to experience this type of intimate friendship with another woman until she became a widow.

I would highly recommend this book. Very few bring tears to my eyes at any point. As I read the last sections, I had to wipe my eyes to see what I was reading. I am very thankful that I didn’t live in that day and age and that my nieces won’t be subjected to such humiliation. Still, women have the ability to survive some of the deepest hardships in human life and can emerge on the other side with the most beautiful and meaningful friendships.


#15 ~ The Time Traveler’s Wife

April 10, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Posted in Books, Literary Criticism, Sexual Identity | 4 Comments
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The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Imagine meeting your husband for the first time at the age of six. Imagine also that he does not know you when you meet him as an adult because he, at his current age, had not met you via time travel. Imagine waiting for good and terrible events to happen because you know about them ahead of time. Since you cannot alter the future, you can’t stop things like car crashes, fatal accidents, or September 11, 2001. Is the joy received by knowing about the love you will experience in the future worth the heartache that comes from being unable to prevent those you love from being hurt?

The book begins with Henry’s earliest experiences with time travel, it moves on to Clare’s experiences with Henry as she grew up, and then continued in time from the day they first “met” as adults. After they become a couple, you read about more of Henry’s adventures from the perspective of when they happen in “real time.” At first, Henry does not tell Clare that they will someday be married. It wasn’t until she asked him point blank that he told her the truth from his perspective from the future. From then, Clare only imagines her life with Henry. Although she has ample opportunity, she doesn’t date. She’s focused on her art studies and the man she believes is her destiny. Henry, on the other hand, does not know she exists until he is 28. Prior to that, he sowed quite a few wild oats.

It is the disparity in what young Clare knows versus what young Henry does not that seems controlling to me. At their last meeting as a result of Henry’s time travel, a 43 year old Henry tells Clare to live her life to the fullest and be confident that they will meet again and be together forever. Clare says that she will do nothing but wait for him. Henry again tells her to experience all the life that she can, but mentions that he doesn’t want her to date other men. That fact that Henry told her what he would prefer made her decision to wait that much more concrete. Henry is a fine and loving partner for Clare, but he also got exactly what he wanted. It goes back to the double-standard that men are almost expected to explore the world and its women before settling down while it is preferable to them that their wives are found by them to be naïve and innocent. While I found this irritating, it is not out of place or character. This isn’t your typical life experience, but Clare’s decision to be with Henry and with Henry alone is what I would imagine most young women would do. I wonder what would have happened had it been Clare who was the time traveler?

The Time Traveler’s Wife flowed well and maintained my interest throughout. I did find the ending somewhat hokie, but the theme of waiting was followed through to the end. One aspect about Ms. Niffenegger’s writing did pull me out of the book from time to time. I’m sure that writing sexual scenes is not easy. How do you put what is without words into words without sounding too harsh or too flowery? In general, I don’t have hang-ups when reading explicit writing; but, when hard core words are used, they should at least fit the character. When it doesn’t, it gets in the way of my reading enjoyment. For example, there is a scene in which Clare uses the word c#nt. I will be the first to admit that I wish that word didn’t exist at all. Beyond my own personal preferences, it just wasn’t believable that Clare would use that word, and especially not in the situation in which she did. Henry’s use of the word c#ck came across the same way. When those types of words are used for shock value, I wonder if the author doesn’t trust her writing or her ability to shape her characters.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is interesting to read and the book is well written. Other fiction I’ve written that dealt with the complications that arise from time travel have not been contained within the confines of time traveler’s potential life span. This made that concept more realistic to me. I enjoyed tagging along with Henry and Clare on their adventures. I think that you will, too.

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