Lady Tan’s Circle of Women” by Lisa See

Review by Amy Atzert, collection development librarian

When Tan Yunxian’s mother dies very young, and her father remarries she is sent to be raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother is one of only a few female doctors in the region. Yunxian is smart and interested and learns about women’s illnesses. Most of all she learns the value of a woman caring for other women. Her grandmother encourages her to work alongside Meiling, another young woman who is a midwife in training. The two become close friends despite the challenges of coming from different social classes. This type of relationship in 15th century China is often forbidden.

The time quickly comes when Yunxian is sent away for an arranged marriage and her mother-in-law forbids her to see her dear friend Melling. The separation is truly heartbreaking. Her mother-in-law no longer allows her healing practices in the household. She is to focus on the duties of a proper wife of means including embroidering foot slippers, reciting poetry and giving birth to sons. She is also to stay within the walls of the family compound. It is Yunxian’s greatest desire to find a way to break free from these constraints, continue to treat women of every level of society, and to once again see her dear friend Meiling. A shocking discovery within the community might just bring them back together after all. 

See’s writing is beautiful and full of historical detail. This story is inspired by the true life of a woman physician whose remedies are still used five centuries later. At first the characters and storyline seemed too busy, but that quickly changed the more pages I turned. See expertly depicts the details of the social structure of that time especially as it relates to all the women living in the family compound together – wives, widows, servants, daughters and concubines. Sure there is some drama and jealousy, but in its totality this is a story of courage, respect, and family tradition.