Amazing book. Truly. Read it.
End of review.
Okay seriously. The story is primarily about a female child growing up in rural Hunan Province China in the mid-1800s, at the height of foot binding and neo-Confucianism. It’s about the suffering of women in a society where a woman’s worth is literally measured by her ability to bear sons. But it’s also about the sisterhood that forms in the face of adversity through lifelong friendships, familial relationships, and a secret women’s-only writing that was used to communicate between villages. (That is a historical fact, by the way; nu-shu was developed by women as a sort of insider’s secret.
Though we are fortunate enough to live in a time where women have the potential for independence and other means for developing self-worth, womanhood is not defined by how much we suffer but by how we develop our character over time. For both men and women, the ways in which we grow and change over time are what defines our humanness.
Sure, there are cringe-worthy descriptions of foot-binding that made squeezing my toes into my cramped climbing shoes a squeamish experience for days after. There are depictions of sickness, death, squallor, and brutality that would force me to put down the book so as not to be consumed with anger at the injustice of it all. But I felt a duty to women who endured these and similar experiences (the author, Lisa See did an amazing job researching this story) to endure descriptions of their lives, because these were their lives.
Furthermore, this wasn’t what the book was really about; at the end, it was about how an unequal society pulls at the bonds between members of the oppressed group. It was about how the only way to overcome it was not to buy into the oppressive system in full. It was about just how far empathy and compassion can take us.
It made me cry because we all have struggles with friendships, and I thought back to all the times I was a bad friend. I thought about how life can throw these curveballs at us, how we’re all beholden to the whims of nature, and how friendships are, at the end, the most important bonds we have.
It’s less than 300 beautifully-written pages. Read it.