Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See

The latest historical novel from bestselling author Lisa See, inspired by the true story of a woman physician from 15th-century China.

According 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? Lady Tan's Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

Paperback, 320 pages
Published June 6, 2023
 by Simon & Schuster
3.5/5 stars

This is only my third Lisa See book, but already she is synonymous with rich historical stories and women ahead of their time, as well as taking place in China. Such is the case again here with Lady Tan's Circle of Women.

Set in the 1500s this is the story of a young woman with a strong desire and talent to become a doctor. But given the timeframe, we already know that is something that is not just frowned upon but rare. What follows is Tan's life as a wife, mother, daughter in law and friend to many.  

Told from the POV of Yunxian, she recalls the past while telling her story.  It was a learning experience as the Chinese culture plays out in a male dominated world.  See's attention to detail has me trying hard to forget some things I learned - ie feet binding being one example.  This story itself showed a woman ahead of her time, it was well written with Lisa See's usual flair for picking themes revolting around history.  There was family dynamics, traditions with a touch of mystery.  An entertaining read.

This book was part of my 2023 Reading Off My Shelf Challenge.

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