I've recently read two novels. The first was The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant. The novel follows the lives of several characters residing in a small community on Cape Ann, Massachusetts during the late 1800's. Known as "Dogtown" due to the pack of semi-wild dogs that roam its forest, Dogtown has fallen on hard times, and the remaining residents, mostly female, struggle to eke out a living from its barren terrain. The eclectic group of Dogtowners include elderly widows, former slaves, and prostitutes. Personally, I preferred Diamant's first work of historical fiction, The Red Tent, to this one. The love story seemed too contrived, and a lot of pages were spent on characters who later disappear entirely from the story.
The second book I read I liked a lot more. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See follows the lives of two girls growing up during the 1800s. Snow Flower and Lily are matched as laotong, or old sames, by a renown matchmaker, joining them in a bond of lifelong friendship considered more important than that or a marriage. They first meet as small girls and communicate by sending messages written in nu shu, women's secret language, on a fan. The novel follows them through footbinding, marriage, and motherhood, giving the reader an often unsettling glimpse at the lives of women in China during this era. I almost had to stop reading when the footbinding process is described. I always assumed that women's feet were bound and restrained from growing, which seems bad enough, but no, it turns out that the four small toes are broken and folded underneath the ball of the foot, where the bones eventually fuse curled underneath the foot, leaving only the big toe and the heel to walk on. It is estimated that 10% of girls died from infections during the process (it takes two years), and many more were left crippled. Yeah, DISTURBING. After that, their lives don't get much better- they are treated like servants by their in-laws, and their only value is to provide sons. Aside from all the depressing "thank goodness I live here and now rather than then and there" aspects of the book, it is a beautiful, captivating story of two friends whose entire lives are interwoven.