Some writers blaze onto the scene with a dazzling first book. Others build their writing career brick by brick — or "bird by bird," as Annie Lamott put it so...

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“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”
by Lisa See
Random House, 263 pp., $21.95

Some writers blaze onto the scene with a dazzling first book. Others build their writing career brick by brick — or “bird by bird,” as Annie Lamott put it so brightly in her best-selling book.

Former journalist Lisa See belongs to the latter group. In an unspectacular but steady way, she has built her writing career, starting with the well-received memoir “On Gold Mountain” and continuing on with a trio of novels that blended intrigue with her knowledge of Chinese and American culture.

Now, with “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” See turns in another direction and gives us her best book yet. In the story of one woman’s birth-to-death journey during the 19th century in China, she recreates a world that actually existed — a society of women who were paired for life and had their own secret language. By making this her character’s story to tell, she lets us see that world from the inside out, through the window of someone who never transcends her time and place, yet serves as a compassionate and insightful witness.

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Coming up: Lisa See


The author of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” will read at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com). She will read at 7 p.m. Aug. 4 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Lily, the book’s narrator, is the daughter of a humble farmer. Her good looks and — more important — perfect feet vault her upward in the highly stratified society of her Hunan homeland. Lily never questions the system to which she was born, even though it elevates males to nearly godlike status (she knows that bearing a son is what will give her life meaning) and literally cripples women. She witnesses her cousin’s death from infection as a result of the painful foot-binding process, yet willingly endures the pain and revels in the maternal attention required to shape her feet into the “golden lilies” that enhance her status and erotic appeal.

“On the day that my bindings were rewrapped,” Lily recalls, “Mama pulled my loose bones back and up against the soles of my feet. At no other time did I see Mama’s love so clearly.”

When Lily is 8 years old, according to tradition, she is paired with a lifelong soul mate, her “old same,” a girl of her own age with whom her stars align. Lily is fortunate enough to make a match with Snow Flower, who lives in a nearby town and hails from a more esteemed family than her own. Their union starts with an initial exchange of coy messages written on a fan in the secret language called nu shu. It then graduates to sleepovers and increasing intimacy that carries the girls through adolescence and toward their planned marriages.

Although both had been born under the sign of the horse, “my feet were always on the ground — practical, loyal and obedient — while her horse spirit had wings that wanted to soar,” Lily observes. Their fortunes, likewise, will diverge. To Lily’s sorrow, and due to circumstances beyond their control, Snow Flower heads down the social ladder while Lily goes up.

But, as befits her temperament, Lily’s devotion will not die. In a rare step beyond the bounds of convention, she risks alienating her all-powerful mother-in-law to maintain her friendship with Snow Flower, explaining, “I was stubborn enough to believe I could fix a horse that had gone lame.”

In form, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is mindful of another fictional birth-to-death journey, Carol Shields’ “The Stone Diaries,” the superb, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a woman living in America during the 20th century. But it also stands in revealing contrast, illuminating the profound cultural differences that separate women from their historical counterparts, as well as many of their contemporaries around the world.

Where Shields’ protagonist is haunted by a sense of psychological isolation as women’s lives are transformed, Lily lives in a relatively static world where she defines her identity in terms of her relationships — first with her parents, then with Snow Flower, and ultimately with her husband and his family.

Some readers may rail at Lily’s passivity toward her patriarchal surroundings. But most, I hope, will see her as a woman of her time and place who, like many women across time and cultures, has the courage to break rank for those she loves. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is a beautifully drawn portrait of female friendship and power.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland.

With Margo Hammond, she writes as The Book Babes and can be found at www.goodhousekeeping.com/bookbabes.