I taught Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See to freshmen a couple months ago. One very interesting freshmen class was comprised of 21 boys and 3 girls. So it is safe to say that my journey into this novel was an interesting one. However, the book can stand on its own. It doesn’t matter that I taught the book or that the book wasn’t necessarily well-received by my freshmen classes (especially the boys). The book taught me a lot. And that is what I’m going to try and articulate here as I work through my review.
I doubt I would have picked this book up on my own. Despite my Asian American heritage, I don’t read a whole lot of Asian American authors. I read several in college when I took Asian American literature and after taking the class I made a silent resolution to read more, but never really followed through on that. I should.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story that Lisa See shares. As I had to teach my students, this novel is a verisimilitude (or pretty darn close to the truth). Basically, See utilized some pretty extensive research to create the story of a lifelong friendship between two 19th century girls living in Southern China. She explores the impact of cultural restrictions for women during this time. The book addresses issues like foot binding and familial duty, but the heart of the story explores friendship. Through the story’s main characters, Lily and Snow Flower, See exposes some of the limitations of friendship.
And while I loved learning bits and pieces of Chinese history, I found the topic of friendship resonated with me the most. Although I can’t necessarily say that I liked the narrator and protagonist, Lily, I did find myself sympathizing with her. I saw so much of myself in her. And that forced me to take a moment and examine some of my experiences with friendship. I don’t have many. My friendships usually ebb and flow. Many of them have been more about circumstance than actually building a lasting relationship with a person. And I have never understood why my friendships seem to just kind of fizzle out with time. We live in a digital age where communication should be enhancing our ability to keep in touch with people, right?
Maybe not. Because even though I check my e-mail constantly, I find that I get a lot more spam than actual correspondence. Even though I bring my cell phone everywhere, I get more text messages from people I see on a daily basis than on the friends who live far away. How much have I really been able to communicate with any of the people that I call friends? And thinking about this actually just makes me feel a little lonely. It seems that despite all my accessibility, I’m trapped in a bubble of lack of communication. And yes, I understand that friendship is a two way street. But I also wonder why I feel like I’m always the one reaching out.
Which leads me to perhaps the most unfortunate realization that this book led me to: not every friendship is meant to survive. Sometimes, we have to let go and move on. Some friendships aren’t made to last. And so I found myself ending a friendship that I hung on to for way too long. It was a friendship that seemed to build on my own insecurities, a toxic friendship that actually took more from me than it ever gave or created. And I wonder if all of my inabilities to create lasting friendships actually grew out of that one toxic friendship. Is it possible that I might be more successful at building meaningful relationships now that I’m free?
I’m not sure if the death of one friendship will magically fix all of my social inadequacies, but I do feel lighter and more free. I’m ready to get back out there in the hopes of meeting like-minded people who are willing to put in the time and effort to build up some friendships (and I feel pretty confident that my job is allowing me to meet some of these people!). This book gave me hope in the power of change and time to heal. And even more than that, it made me crave the lost art of letter writing. The women in this novel actually write to one another on fans in a secret women’s language called nu shu (how cool is that?!).
How do you feel about communication in the digital age — does it bring people closer together or actually weaken bonds? Do you have a hard time making long-lasting friendships or is it something that comes easy to you? If you feel it comes easy to you, can you please share your secret? Anyone out there still writing old-fashioned letters? I might be in the market for a pen pal — let me know if you’re interested!
© 2013, Jennifer Lesnick. All rights reserved.