Set in 19th century China, the novel tells the sad story of Lily and Snowflower, who are lifelong, intimate friends ( laotong , or “old sames”). The girls experience the horror of foot binding, where from age 7 they are crippled and confined to the upstairs rooms until their arranged marriages take place. Lily marries into the household of a wealthy government official, while Snowflower becomes the beaten wife of a low status butcher. Throughout the novel, the cultural insistence on having sons dominates nearly every aspect of their lives. Over the years of drudgery, confinement and sorrow, the two exchange messages of encouragement and hope through secret writing called nu shu, painted onto a decorative fan. Unfortunately, this delicate calligraphy eventually leads to misunderstanding and betrayal.
What the Armchair Critics Thought:
This is an engrossing glimpse into an ancient culture -one so alien to us that it seemed to belong to another planet. The writing is simple and poetic with evocative chapter titles like “Sitting Quietly” for the time of old age. The traditions, duties, superstitions and rituals were so interesting, even though the depiction of this sexist and stifling life made us at once sorrowful and indignant. The descriptions of foot binding were quite stomach turning, yet it was fascinating to hear how it was done and to put ourselves in the place of these poor women. We discussed the motivations of Lily’s mother and concluded that she did her best to prepare her daughter for the hard future she would face. Despite the fate of Snowflower, we felt that Lily’s aunt was the saddest character of the book.