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Review: Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See

Title: Lady Tan's Circle of Women

Author: Lisa See
Year published: 2023
Category: Adult fiction (historical)
Pages: 368 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location: (my 2023 Google Reading map)China

SummaryAccording to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.

From a young age, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other’s joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.

But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife—embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.

How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts? 

Review: Lisa See's books are always a hit for me. Here are the links to my reviews of her other novels: Shanghai Girls; Dreams of Joy; Snowflower and the Secret Fan; The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane; China Dolls; and The Island of the Sea Women). I love it when I learn from historical fiction and See's book teach me a lot wrapped in fantastic story telling.

Lisa See is a master storyteller and I always learn so much from her novels. This is my favorite type of historical fiction... one where I learn. 1500s China is a time and place that I knew nothing about and medical innovations/practices certainly aren't my forté. Well, I am so much better informed now.

In the first 100 pages I thought, "this is good but isn't my favorite See book. The medical information is too much with not enough of the lives of these women." Then all of a sudden, there was a shift and topics balanced out. By the end I was completely invested in the lives of Yunxian, her circle of women, and the outlying characters. I think we need to learn the medical at first in order to fully appreciate the fuller story. And what a story it is!

I loved learning that Tan Yunxian was a real person and that the basis of this novel is the medical book that she wrote. In the 1500s. As a woman. Wow. Highly recommend this novel.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Bookish--this is all based on the book written by Yunxian in the 1400s, which is referenced throughout

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