The Wonder Spot and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

There are a few easy ways to lure bibliophile Natasha into buying a new book:

1)      Place it on the table where all the “reading group” books go, preferably with a cover that looks girly but not lame.

2)      List Jane Austen on the front or back cover as having anything whatsoever to do with the book.

The two books I review here had both advantages, and turned out to be satisfying, educational reads.

The Wonder Spot’s back cover proclaims: “What Austen did for marriage, Melissa Bank does for serial monogamy.” After reading the book, I’m still not quite sure what that means. Marriage—to the right person—seems the desired happy ending in Austen, so I suppose being with one person—at least for a while before moving on to the next—is what is supposed to be sought here. I would not have phrased it that way; however, I enjoyed the story because Banks cleverly takes the reader on a journey through a young girl/woman’s life by telling what are, in essence, eight short stories that deal with pivotal moments in that life. There is little of the “transitioning” we’ve come to expect between chapters, but Banks gives us enough information about the central character, Sophie Applebaum, that we can piece together what happens “between” the stories. Sophie, like an Austen heroine, is smart; like an Austen heroine, she wants to do the right thing and to find the right man—and she, like most Austen heroines and most contemporary Jewish single girls (like Sophie) finds herself doing those things, particularly the latter, under the watchful eyes of the people who love her and “want what’s best” for her. The result is not necessarily Austenian, but certainly entertaining.

A similar conclusion results from time spent with Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Its back cover, too, proclaims the tale’s sisterhood with Austen’s corpus. It is “an achingly beautiful, understated and absorbing story of love” and “evokes the work of Jane Austen.” Again, perhaps I need a more advanced degree to prove that (or even understand it), but what matters most to me is that I like reading it and I learn something, and so, in that sense at least, the comparison makes sense. Marriage to the right man—defined not based on love but on social standing, prominence in the community, wealth—is the key goal of families with daughters in this novel, set in nineteenth-century China, and See takes the reader on a journey through the lives of two central women, Lily and Snow Flower, as they weather their own lives. The story includes gruesome details of footbinding and painful reminders of what the lot of women was, not so long ago. Language, and writing, specifically, become key methods of female expression and communication in this story, which, no doubt, Austen, whose letters—largely to female companions—give us insight into her life, would have appreciated. The text also shows us what life is like—in several very different marriages—after the wedding takes place, and how women cope with their inescapable destinies.

I’m well aware that publishers may think me a “sucker” for buying books because they have Austen’s name somewhere in a review.

I’m also aware that, regardless of my being an easy target for book marketers, I have benefited from these choices.

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Published in: on August 2, 2011 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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