The reader first meets the narrator, Lily, as an 80 year old woman looking back on her long and eventful life. She takes us back to when she was a very young girl and her family consults a diviner to determine what her future will hold. It is noticed that she has special feet-ones that can possibly be shaped to be quite small, a trait which is desired by Chinese men. This changes Lily’s destiny since if the foot binding is successful and she ends up with exceptional feet she will secure a better marriage. This also qualifies her to have a laotong or “old same”, a girl that she will form a deep bond with for life as opposed to having sworn sisters which is a group of women one bonds with until married. Through a matchmaker Lily is paired with Snow flower, a girl who was born on the same day and under the same sign as Lily. Although Snow flower is above Lily in station the two soon form a strong bond and Snow flower continues to visit Lily throughout the years as they under go the excruciating process of foot binding and learn everything needed to be successful wives and mothers. When not together, they communicate by writing on a fan in the secret women’s language Nu Shu.
We follow the girls to their teen years as they prepare to be married. Circumstances have changed. Snow Flower’s family is now destitute and can only secure her a marriage with a butcher in a neighboring village while Lily’s foot binding was successful as hoped and she secures a marriage with the prominent Lu family. The girls continue to visit one another despite the differences in their social classes. War comes to the area while Lily is visiting Snow Flower and she is separated from her family and forced to flee with Snow Flower and her husband, relying on their kindness. Through a misunderstanding, the girls stop speaking to each other and are only reunited when tragedy strikes.
This novel elicited a variety of reactions from me. I was touched by the story of friendship throughout the book and found the insights into the lives of the women fascinating. I was repulsed by the detailed descriptions of the painful foot binding and heartbroken at the way women were treated in general at this time-not much better than cattle. Having to go through all that pain just to have feet that will please their husbands and the expectation that they should be shut away from society in their inner realm and expected to be content with womanly pursuits and making babies just angered me. There were several moments in this novel-including a savage beating, and the belittlement by their mother-in-laws and the lack of freedom in general that made me very glad for the way that I live today. The subject of Nu Shu and the development of it as a secret communication among women were interesting. I could sympathize with both characters at different points. It is the story of their friendship that resonates most with me, especially the misunderstandings and the tragic end.
The beautiful melodic writing pulled me in from the beginning and even though I finished it over a week ago, I am still thinking about it. I love books that stay with me for awhile. I am curious to read more about Nu Shu and foot binding. This was a very good book that I can now add to my “Why did I wait so long to read this??? List.
For anyone interested in foot binding this website has a brief description and a few pictures (warning: the pictures might be a wee difficult to look at). http://library.thinkquest.org/J0111742/footbinding.htm
If the FTC is wondering: This book is from my own personal library