In the sequestered world of nineteenth-century China, Lily and Snow Flower become laotong, or old sames”; as such they are intimate, writing in their secret woman's language, Nu Shu, and sharing their deepest feelings in their cloistered lives. They are even together during the Revolution and hide in the mountains together. But, for all their secrets, there are a few things they keep from one another. Lily does not know that Lily has married well only because her little feet are considered beautiful; she is not from the upper class. But, Snow Flower marries beneath herself; her husband is a butcher, and he mistreats her.
Near the end of the narrative, Snow Flower learns of the deception. And, because her life is unhappy and she feels that Lily has offered her little comfort, Snow Flower turns to others. Hurt by Snow Flower's actions, Lily reveals some of Snow Flower's intimate secrets. Later, as the narrator, a changed Lily declares,
I am still learning about love. I thought I understood it—not just mother love, but the love for one’s parents, for one’s husband, and for one’s laotong ....But looking at our secret fan with its messages written between Snow Flower and me over many years, I see that I didn’t value the most important love—deep-heart love.
Although Lily has lived the cloistered life of a wife in nineteenth century China, she feels that
inside I also waged something like a man’s battle between my true nature and the person I should have been.