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Beauty Is Pain, Never Said a Podiatrist

When the book club I’m in selected Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as its next title, I was a little hesitant to read it, thinking I might not be the book’s intended audience.  To be blunt:  it looked like a book for ladies.  And by that I don’t mean women, I mean proper ladies with lace parasols and deeply-held opinions about crumpets.  The book had a soft pink cover adorned with little flowers and a delicate fan framed by floral scroll work.  I know it’s unfair to associate a book with its cover, or a color palate with gender, but this one was asking for it.

Of course, once I started reading, I couldn’t put the beflowered thing down.  The story takes place in a remote area of 19th century China.  It follows the lives of two sworn sisters, or laotong, over the course of their lives – from humble girlhoods through the trials of marriage, family, and invading horde.  In traditional Chinese culture, a laotong relationship was the epitome of BFFs – a formalized friendship that was expected to be more emotionally intimate than any other in the women’s lives.  Together they practiced nu shu, an ancient form of women’s writing, which they used to exchange correspondence and to chronicle their laotong relationship on the folds of a paper fan.

Through the lives of the sworn sisters, the book examines the various degradations women were subjected to in that time and place.  From birth they were considered a burden, whose only value was in service to the family and their ability to create sons.  To make girls marriageable, their feet were bound in a long, gruesome process – which left them essentially housebound for the rest of their lives.  I think that process best illustrates how dainty this book turned out to be: “By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk.  I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes.  The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture.”  Eesh.

So, while there was ample discussion of things like embroidery in the book (which was actually fascinating), there was also a healthy number of pages that were full-on gruesome.  Something for everyone.

If your book club would be interested in this title, or any of our Book Club in a Bag sets, simply submit an online reservation form.  We currently have over 80 Book Club in a Bag sets, each containing 10-12 copies of the book and a discussion guide, and they checkout for 8 weeks. – Ransom Jabara, Reference

One Comment

  1. Tammy Steeples says:

    Our bookclub liked this book also, and we enjoyed viewing the movie (that the Library owns) after discussing the book. The movie started with some modern day descendents of the original two girls but also followed the events of the book pretty well. It was in English and Chinese with English subtitles.

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