This is the kind of book I'd normally expect to like, both for its historical setting and for its focus on women. But it does no more than skim the surface of its characters' lives, and I never had any kind of connection to the characters.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is primarily a story about the lifelong friendship between two women, Lily and Snow Flower. Probably the best thing about this book is the research that evidently went into the author's depiction of the setting--rural villages in 19th century China--and culture. I did learn some things from it. The story takes place very much within the limitations of the times, with the author taking great pains to create authentic characters. Cultural relativists will love this book: the characters are presented as people of that time and place might have been, and as the narrator, Lily rarely questions her society's underlying assumptions. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, example of this is her attitude toward footbinding (which is described in detail): Lily's told that this is necessary to make a good marriage, and fully accepts that belief, going on as a mother to bind her daughter's feet. See trusts that readers can do without a character pointing out all the problems with these beliefs, which does create a much more authentic setting and cast of characters.
And there were aspects of the book's treatment of the women's friendship that I liked. Often stories about friendship or sisterhood will feature a relationship that's just perfect until one character gets involved with the other's man, but that cliché is nowhere to be found here: instead, the problems in Lily and Snow Flower's relationship arise from the women themselves. So, although their lives are entirely alien to me, there was more I could relate to here than in some modern books about women's friendships.
But. Sadly, I could never muster the least emotional involvement in this tale. It's a very short book to chronicle a life of 80 years, and it manages this with lots of summarizing, lots of showing rather than telling. I opened to a random page seeking an example, and immediately saw this:
"When I left my natal home four days ago, tears had poured down my face. I was sad, happy and afraid all at the same time. But now, as I sat with Snow Flower on her bed, I saw on her cheeks tears of remorse, guilt, shame, and embarrassment."
And the whole book is like that. The writing style is average at best, and rather than writing scenes that might cause the reader to feel for the characters, See simply identifies the characters' emotions and moves on. The characters lack vibrancy; they remain characters in a tale, never seeming lifelike. Furthermore, for a story that's so much about daily life, there's no real effort to immerse the reader in Lily's life. The book focuses on her friendship with Snow Flower to the exclusion of almost everything else. Early on, we see Lily's older sister, who's having a hard time in her marriage.... and we never learn how that turns out, because the sister never appears again. Lily's older brother gets married while Lily is still at home, and given the way these characters live (the women spend almost all their days together in the upstairs chamber) one would think the sister-in-law would be an important part of her life--but the book doesn't even mention that he's married until making some reference, in passing, to his wife and son. Wait a minute, there's a son too? Wouldn't that be a big deal in this house? But in the end, I don't think See really wants to immerse the reader in the characters' lives; she wants to summarize Lily's relationship with Snow Flower, and the quicker the better.
In the end, I didn't even cry at the dramatized death scenes. And I almost always cry at dramatized death scenes of major characters.
I can see that a lot of people loved this book, which I find rather perplexing since to me, there was not much here to grab onto. I much prefer Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-Shei, a historical-fantasy take on the women's language of nu shu and the sworn bonds between women in ancient China. For all its faults, Jin-Shei is an ambitious, passionate, tragic book; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan might be more realistic, but it left me cold.