22 August 2007

behind these lattice windows

Everyone loves the mysteries of a secret world, locked away in some parallel universe that we often neglect to recognize as our own. We love to hear the whispered stories of shielded lives behind walls and screens. We live for the rush that we get when we learn something previously hidden, accompanied by the soft pattering of our hearts as the realization of having gained a special trust sweeps over our bodies and settles softly in the peaceful parts of our souls. And that is precisely the effect that Lisa See creates when a reader is bold enough to delve into her acclaimed novel: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Recounting a lifetime of ardor and emotion, Lily's detailed narrative allows us to enter into a place that shines with a glimpse of paradise that stands guard against the social oppression that makes such a place a necessity. This sacred utopia - in a culture where a woman is worth nothing more than the sons she can bear - is the highly coveted and fiercely protected intimacy between women. Some create small groups of "sworn sisters" within the local community who act as support systems for one another, but even these exhibit loose ties when compared to the bond shared between laotong, "same olds" - a relationship fostered from childhood, formed and revered to be more binding than family or spouse, because it is a relationship of equality and choice in a world functioning on the rules of responsibility and indebtedness.

In an effort to possibly justify or redeem the choices she has made in her life, Lily explores her lifelong journey with Snow Flower, her laotong. Communicating through nu shu - "the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use" - the two young women create for themselves a world of dreams and promises that attempts to shut out their bleak shared realities. As a middle daughter neglected by her family, Lily finds in Snow Flower a genuine human connection as they both plow through life's hardships in search of an affirmation that will establish a self worth innate in their nature as human beings, independent of their bride prices. Lily runs from paradigm to paradigm as she reconciles various manifestations of love in her life: "mother love" that beat her with a stick while she broke the bones in her feet to create the perfect 7 inch "golden lilies" that would ensure her a good marriage; her husband's love, often childish but sincere, that bridges the outside world of the man with the inner sphere of the home; and her laotong love that encourages Lily to recognize and share the deepest most real parts of her self, but also leads to the darkest, most excruciating pains that Lily will carry for the rest of her years.

In this clearly vulnerable account trust, betrayal, and forgiveness, we are called to wonder about the walls of dishonesty and anger we build around ourselves in an attempt to bury our own insecurities, even when faced with the scrutiny of love. How much do we really believe in this idea of unconditional love that Lily expresses in the opening pages? Are we doomed to be daunted by our unwillingness to extend it? Or is the real fault in our inability to trust in its existence and simply receive it? I believe that See, through Lily, documents this life filled with regrets precisely so that we can believe in a life free of them.

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