1. Brings to light the strange conventions that each culture puts on women -- makes one appreciate the freedoms we now have, but also look at the social conventions in our own culture with a fresh perspective
2. Puts the reader in Lily's (main character) world -- we truly see the world from her eyes and experience her perception of the events as they unfold.
3. Tells the beauty of forgiveness in friendship
Cons1. Slow pace - this is certainly not a book that is full of action. It is more nuanced and may appear slow moving at times.
I wasn't sure if I would like it at first - but I was immediately drawn in by the characters. This book took place in nineteenth century China and focused on a woman, Lily, through her entire life. So sad - how strangely limited women were during this period. After their feet were bound, an ungodly practice, at seven or eight years old, they were basically trapped in their house from that point forward, except for the occasional festival. I tried to push aside my immediate judgments and listen to the story. It was difficult - women had no value in this society, none whatsoever.
It was in this limited space that women found meaning, in their relationships with each other, in their struggles to overcome the sadness and despair that was inherent in their lives.
Lily was noticed at a young age as having the capacity for perfect feet, golden lilies, as they called them, and so was matched with a boy (of greater status) for marriage. She was lucky. She was also matched with a girl with similar traits, for a laotong, a lifelong vow of friendship between two women, two "sames." Snow Flower was from a "better family" than Lily, but their match was made through the scheming of Snow Flower's aunt for reasons that became known later.
Through marriage, childbirth, loss of children, husband brutality, war, famine, and disease, the two women supported each other. But, even though they had vowed eternal friendship, a rift came between them through a miscommunication through their messages to each other - which had sustained their friendship through the years.
The secret language of women, nu shu, had very few characters and therefore it was important to read the context of every sentence before drawing conclusions about its meaning. Lily, tragically, did not do this and her subsequent actions were based upon a misconception. Her blind rage and disappointment caused her to separate from Snow Flower.
I can't say the story has a happy ending, no women's life in this period could truly have that, I think. The story has so many levels. I have the habit, when reading books completely from the narrator's point of view, to side with them through it all. I almost felt like Lily because I felt her guilt and sadness when she realized her mistake. She played it safe and closed her eyes to the reality of Snow Flower's situation. I could see myself doing the same thing. It was a frightening world and I would want to "toe the line" and stay in the fold.
I would recommend this novel. It is beautifully written. It provides a fascinating view into nineteenth century China, while offering an underlying commentary on women's rights today and the importance of friendship in navigating a world designed for men.