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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

A Novel
By: Lisa See
Narrated by: Janet Song
Length: 11 hrs and 6 mins
Categories: Fiction, Historical
4.5 out of 5 stars (2,347 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.

Lily is haunted by memories of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.  

In 19th-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu ("women's writing"). Some girls were paired with laotongs, "old sames", in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.

With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become "old sames" at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

©2005 Lisa See (P)2005 Books on Tape Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Engrossing....Both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle." (Publishers Weekly)

What members say

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Sandra
  • Alton, Ontario, Canada
  • 01-11-09

A fascinating glimpse into a special relationship

This was an interesting historical fiction about two women bound together for life through ancient Chinese custom as old-sames; a sacred relationship more intimate than that of friend, sister, daughter, or wife.
Throughout their lives, their histories and constantly evolving circumstances affect their relationship. From the tender age at which both girls suffer the tortuous pain of having their feet bound, through their years as young wives and mothers, and finally as old women, they communicate through the use of secret womens' writing on a fan. Their interpretation of one another's joys and sorrows through the writings on the secret fan play an important role in their story.
I did not particularly enjoy the narration style; it was read in an unusual monotone delivered in a somewhat staccato style, though this was completely a personal preference.
I would recommend this book to readers interested in the history of womens' lives and relationships in ancient China.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Laurie
  • East Millstone, NJ, United States
  • 02-22-06


Reminscent of "Memoirs of a Geisha," this book takes place in 19th century China where women's roles were limited to bearing children (preferably sons) and doing chores around the house. They live in their inlaws' house and rarely, if ever, see their parents once they move in. Not only is Lily's marriage arranged, but so is her deep friendship with Snowflower. They quickly grow to love each other. I'll stop now to avoid giving away the plot. The novel is narrated by Lily at 80 years old, twice the years of the average lifespan of a woman. This is a truly wonderful novel with an excellent narrator. I missed the characters acutely once it was over.

18 of 20 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Laugh a little Cry a little Love All

I was reading this novel about a year ago and lost my book. I found it here on Audible and decided to listen to it. I recalled that even though I did not get far into the reading of it before I had liked what I read.

What happened is this: I got tired of narrator's tone. So I went and purchased paperback and started reading the book again. However, when reading to myself I kept hearing the narrator's voice. The story is so very good that even tho I did not care much for the narrator's tone I still listened to it during times I could not read- like at work and doing household chores.

The story is so touching, even powerful because I know it will influence my future perceptions of the value of friendships, sisterhood, and mother-daughter relationships.

The focus is primarily the relationship between two girls/women and reminds me of my relationship with my own twin-sister. Extremely few bonds are ever as close. Even the physical contact shared by these two may to some seem inappropriate but they were not sexual experiences. It just showed how deep the friendship became- "old sames".

I also liked the other relationship perceptions explored by the author (Mother-daughter, Aunties, Blood sisters, Daugher/Mother-in-law, etc). This novel delves into many issues that arise in the lives of women and although the culture is very different from American culture (for instance the practice of taking a concubine) the feelings are very much the same and identifiable.

I laughed a little. I cried a little more. But I loved all.

About the narrator: eventually her voice/tone grew on me. It helped to be able to read the physical copy as well. I listened to 100% of the novel and read 100%. I am likely to listen to it again now that I am accustomed to the narrator....but for certain I will be entertained by this novel again be it audio or visual.

Don't pass it up either way.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars


I have heard good reviews about this book for years, and it has been a popular choice as a Book Club read, so I looked forward to listening for some time. What a disappointment! Although I found the story somewhat interesting and informative at times, the narrator's voice was so grating that it was a real struggle to complete. I would suggest a paper copy of the book, if you want to bother at all. The theme of the book is about female friendship, but I found it difficult to relate to the selfishness of the main character. The reasons for Lily's abandonment of her life-long friend for many years was hard to fathom, and its resolution didn't ring true for me. For a much better, less sappy story, I'd vote for Memoirs of a Geisha anytime!

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Narrator Becomes the Main Character

The narrator (Janet Song) managed to pull me in immediately and I anxiously looked forward to car trips to keep up with the story. I even listened to it while doing housework. It is now one of my favorite audios.

This book tells the story of the realm of women during early 1800's China. Women spent their entire lives inside concerned only with household duties. It is told through the point of view of Lily, now an old woman of 80 years. She begins with her poor childhood and the days just before her foot-binding at age 7. Because she is so beautiful and has remarkable feet a lao-tang match is made for her with a girl of a more educated and refined background, Snow Flower. The two become life-long friends and enter into a relationship with a stronger bond even then marriage during that time period.

They communicate using Nu-shu, or women's writing, a more simplified version of the Chinese characters. Because it is forbidden they hide their words in a large fan and send it back and forth over the years.

Both girls take very different paths when it is time for them to marry, but they continue their friendship through letters and their secret fan. Through family deaths, famine and war we see the hard lives thrust upon women and are completely engrossed in their stories. The images of the rigors of foot-binding will stay with me forever.

I highly recommend this book. We will be discussing at my next book group and I’m dying to see what the ladies have to say.

16 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • B.J.
  • Minneapolis, MN, United States
  • 11-04-07

Just so-so

While I loved hearing details about this period of time in China, I found the narrator's voice to be incredibly irritating and distracting. This is a book I would have enjoyed more as a read than a listen.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    1 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Story was slow but ok. Narrator was unbearable.

I did appreciate the historical elements woven into this story. However, about halfway through, I realized that I could no longer tolerate the narrator's voice, and the plot was not enough to keep me hanging on. Out of self-preservation, I jumped ship. Hope it ended well.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Amy
  • Sherman Oaks, CA, United States
  • 01-06-11

Beautiful story, nauseating narrator!

The story is lovely, but the narrator has an overdramatic approach to her storytelling that made it seem like she was always on the verge of breaking down. But the most appalling thing was her disregard for the chinese language. She didn't attempt at all to correctly pronounce the common words in the story like nushu and laotong!! Someone narrating 11 hours of a culturally rich story should attempt to get that correct as it was very much the heart of the story.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Loved it!

What a wonderful view into life for women in China half a century ago! I feel the reader did a great job and I was sad to have the book end.

22 of 27 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Janice
  • Sugar Land, TX, United States
  • 07-29-11

A portrait of unconditional love

Previous reviewers who loved this story (as I do) have already stated the obvious - it is heartfelt, insightful and brings us into the inner world of Chinese women's culture. I was drawn in immediately and never let go - the ending was heartbreaking and touching at the same time. It makes a poignant statement about the nature of friendship, loyalty and unconditional love. This was a book I was sorry to end.
Some reviewers have not enjoyed the reader - I felt that her reading was excellent and added greatly to the characters and the sense of place and time. I'd recommend listening to the sample to determine if the reading is not to your liking, but I loved it.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful