This is a gorgeous, heart-breaking tale of love and loss set in nineteenth century China. It follows the friendship between two young girls who are paired together from the age of seven in an arrangement known as laotong, an emotional match that lasts an entire lifetime.
Lily, the narrator, and her "old same", Snow Flower, live in separate villages in a remote county, one girl is rich and the other poor.
In a society where women are regarded as worthless, the girls find solace in their special bond by communicating with one another using a unique exclusively female language called nu shu, writing secret messages on a silk fan that is carried backwards and forwards between them.
Over the course of their lives they share everything despite the vast differences in their social standing. Both of them confront all kinds of agonies - footbinding, arranged marriages, family tragedies, disease, famine and war - and experience great joys - the birth of children, wedding feasts and festivals. But when a misunderstanding arises between them, their lives are changed forever.
Like the very best novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is not only an unforgettable and entertaining story (I read it in two sittings), it introduces us to a fascinating world few of us could possibly imagine, much less understand. While I knew about the existence of footbinding, an old Chinese custom which is no longer legal, I was not aware of the process or the history behind it until reading this book. It is easy for us today to think of this custom as cruel and abusive, which it undoubtedly was, but See has written this book so convincingly it is hard to feel anything but empathy for the girls who endured it and the mothers who carried it out.
This lovely, straightforward narrative also reveals much about how women lived their lives at that time in history, how important it was to give birth to a heir and why the shape of their feet determined their future wealth and happiness.
All in all this is a beautiful read about friendship, regret, atonement and survival. I was sorry to reach the final page and will be thinking about this story for years to come, I am sure.