The story revolves around Lily and Snow Flower, two girls in rural China who - as seven-year-olds - become laogong, official lifelong best friends. The girls have their feet bound on the same day (a horrifying practice in which a girl's feet are bound until the bones break and they can be contorted into a small shape), visit on occasion, and frequently write each other on a fan in a language called Nu Shu or women's writing - supposedly unreadable by men.
As the girls grow up they marry, move to their husbands familial homes, have children, and face the many challenges of being a woman in 19th century China. Traditionally, women in China had no rights. Once their feet were bound girls were mostly confined to a 'woman's room' where they sewed and embroidered and so on, and - once married - were expected to obey their husbands and mothers-in-law and to produce sons. In Chinese culture it seems wives jobs were to have sons, and this is almost all they were good for. The husbands, on the other hand, could apparently do whatever they liked - take concubines, beat their wives, discard their wives, etc.
From the first time they meet as children Lily and Snow Flower have a strong emotional bond. They share hopes and dreams and plan to be friends forever. Secrets in Snow Flower's life challenge the friendship but the girls' manage to get past this and maintain their bond. Eventually Lily makes a fortunate marriage into an influential family with a decent husband while Snow Flower marries into a low family that treats her badly. Lily produces two strong sons while Snow Flower endures difficult pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths - and when she finally has a son - he is a weakling who seens destined to die young. In time both women go on to produce more children, and when they have daughters, plan that the girls will also be laogong.
Through it all - as Snow Flower's difficulties come to weigh heavily on her - Lily is constantly counseling her best friend to behave correctly, be a good wife, obey her husband, placate her mother-in-law, and continue to get pregnant. Events conspire to produce a crisis betweent the friends where their true feelings are dramatically exposed.
It was interesting to read about the Chinese traditions, lifestyles, and people of the time but the book is slow and meandering and the characters, though well-drawn, were not likable and hard to care about. In addtion - for me - the description of how women were treated is hard to stomach. I was also reminded that the devaluation of women continues in China today - where female infants are often killed or discarded. This ensures that many men can't find women to marry. One might speculate that - with the one child policy - the Chinese government should have seen this coming.
For those interested in learning about 19th century China I'd recommend reading a non-fiction book and skipping this one.