The best kind of historical fiction isn’t just a book that faithfully recreates the details of a previous era in order to embellish its story, but something that actually tells us something new about a person or time period we weren’t terribly familiar with along the way. Lisa See’s novels excel at both these elements, delving into Chinese history and culture through uniquely female stories and perspectives that make her work stand out from the historical fiction pack. From the rural villages of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to the bustling world of World War II-era Shanghai in Shanghai Girls, her stories are full of strong, capable women, offering us quiet windows into the lives of those who are so often silenced by history. See’s latest novel, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is set in set in 15th-century China, and follows the story of Tan Yunxian, a woman most modern American readers have likely never heard of. (Confession time: I hadn’t before I read his book!!)
A female physician who practiced during the Ming dynasty, she published a book of her cases when she turned fifty, titled Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor. (And you can actually still it buy today!) Little is known about her personal life; in fact, almost nothing survives about her beyond the writing she left behind. But that’s what fiction is for, isn’t it? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women takes that absence of knowledge and fashions a specific, vibrant, and thoroughly lived-in history for Yunxian.
In it, she’s highly educated, the daughter of an elite family, a woman with a secure future who yearns to do something more with her life than fulfill the traditional duties of marriage and motherhood. But what makes See’s book so especially satisfying is that it doesn’t just tell the story of one incredible woman, it imagines the constellation of unremembered women who surely must have surrounded her, encouraging her, uplifting her, or even just holding her hand along the way.
Yunxian is a child when the story begins, a dutiful aristocrat’s daughter whose future should have contained little beyond bound feet, childbirth, and a life spent forever behind the walls of the family compound. But when her mother dies of an infection, she’s sent to live with her paternal grandparents, both of whom are physicians who support female education and are more than willing to teach her the healing arts they practice. (Yunxian’s grandmother holds the radical belief that female physicians are uniquely positioned to treat other women, given that male doctors are not allowed to be in the same room as female patients and must blindly diagnose them through a screen using questions conveyed via a third party.)
While there, Yunxian becomes close friends with a midwife’s daughter named Meiling, a member of a profession considered taboo by many of the families in her circle, given their close contact with blood and other intimate fluids, as well as their practice of abortion. Yet their bond continues throughout her life, even after she marries into a wealthy merchant’s family, and acquires a rigid mother-in-law who insists she stop all activities that go against what a “proper Confucian woman” ought to do.
Though she experiences seasons of sadness and isolation, Yuxian’s friendship with Meiling, as well the bonds she forms with the other women she meets at the new home, including family elders, concubines, servants, and her own daughters provide rich, unexpected joys and new connections. Frequent outbreaks of smallpox and illness provide her an opportunity to prove her skills as a physician and underline the ways that these diverse communities of women ultimately must learn to rely on one another in a world populated by men who often don’t see them as more than objects of pleasure or familial advancement in the form of heirs.
See’s pacing tends to err on the side of stately rather than propulsive, though the introduction of a late-stage murder plot does add some mystery to the book’s final third. While some of the overall plot can feel fairly predictable, given that we know Yunxian’s work will last well past her own lifetime, the deft ways the story addresses issues of class and power are intriguing. So much so that you may well find yourself wishing that See had delved even further into the real-life impact of many of the obvious inequalities inherent to life in feudal China that the story only mentions in passing. Meiling, in particular, provides a welcome and necessary perspective that addresses some of Yuxian’s blind spots about her own particular privilege and the quite frankly astonishing level of self-determination she ultimately achieves.
But the heart of this tale is indeed its titular circle of women, who rally around each other in ways both large and small throughout the story’s pages. During a time period where women are generally given very little that any of us might recognize as basic agency, let alone true freedom, the quiet ways they make space for and uplift one another is touching and heartfelt. May we all have such women in our lives—and recognize them for the gift they are.
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is available now wherever books are sold.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.