Skip to Main Content

About The Book

A startling and vivid debut novel in stories from acclaimed poet and translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain featuring deeply compelling Asian women who reckon with the past, violence, and exile—set in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Paris, and New York.

“Cooking for Madame Chiang,” 1946: Two cooks work for Madame Chiang Kai-shek and prepare a foreign dish craved by their mistress, which becomes a political weapon and leads to their tragic end. “Death at the Wukang Mansion,” 1966: Punished for her extramarital affair, a dancer is transferred to Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and assigned to an ominous apartment in a building whose other residents often depart in coffins. “The White Piano,” 1996: A budding pianist from New York City settles down in Paris and is assaulted when a mysterious piano arrives from Singapore. “The Invisible Window,” 2016: After their exile following the Tiananmen Square massacre, three women gather in a French cathedral to renew their friendship and reunite in their grief and faith.

Evocative, vivid, disturbing, and written with a masterly ear for language, Dear Chrysanthemums renders a devastating portrait of diasporic life and inhumanity, as well as a tender web of shared memory, artistic expression, and love.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Dear Chrysanthemums includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Composed of several interconnected stories, each taking place in a year ending with the number six—ironically a number in Chinese divination that signifies “a smooth life”—Dear Chrysanthemums is a novel about the scourge of inhumanity, survival, and past trauma that never leaves. The women in these stories are cooks, musicians, dancers, protesters, mothers and daughters, friends and enemies, all inexplicably connected in one way or another.

With devastating precision, a masterly ear for language, and a profound understanding of both human cruelty and compassion, Fiona Sze-Lorrain weaves Dear Chrysanthemums, an evocative and disturbing portrait of diasporic life, the shared story of uprooting, resilience, artistic expression, and enduring love.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Dear Chrysanthemums begins with a Chinese proverb: “Secrets on earth / thunder in heaven.” How does this contextualize the work and prepare the reader for this kaleidoscopic novel?

2. The novel follows a nonchronological structure as it takes the reader from the mid-twentieth century through the twenty-first century across China, Europe, and America. Discuss the author’s choice to structure the novel in this way rather than remain in one time period or present the events chronologically. How does this style contribute to this sense of intersecting lives?

3. “Death at the Wukang Mansion” introduces the question of acceptable forms of performance. On one hand, Ling, a former dancer, discreetly practices ballet “for fear of being denounced for her capitalist dance exercises,” (page 13). On the other hand, the Red Guards sing in “off-pitch prophetic refrains . . . with gusto” as they carry coffins in and out of the Wukang Mansion (page 8). What other forms of performance are there throughout the book and how are they used?

4. Food and extravagance are key symbols in “Cooking for Madame Chiang.” Characters remark on the madame’s desires for extravagant: creating the perfect sela dish, or bathing in milk when the liquid is rare amongst the lower economic classes. With the story’s setting in 1946, how does this story help shape our understanding of the Communist revolution in 1949?

5. Throughout the novel, there are several interesting shifts in perspective. Some chapters are told in first person, others are told in third, and others seem to alter halfway through. For example, “Green” is told from the first-person perspective of the character “Little Green” from the previous chapter. Also, the titular chapter, “Dear Chrysanthemums,” seems to begin in third person but later reveals that the chapter is being told from the first-person perspective of Mei’s student. How do these shifts, and others, help reveal more or different information? What does it add to your reading experience?

6. “The Invisible Window” is a story unfolded through the conversation of three women in a French cathedral. Discuss the craft of this story. What is the significance of these women recalling their pasts in this place and this time?

7. Each section of the book is introduced by a short poem. Examine these poems and discuss how they relate to or prepare you for the chapters ahead.

8. Much of the conflict in “The White Piano” points to issues of race, class, and what individuals feel they are owed. Discuss the various conflicts at play—the Algerian mover’s sexual assault of Willow, the piano forced upon her, the Filipina maid denying Willow a glass of water and later lying about it to breed mistrust, and so forth. Consider how resentment and European assimilation play a key role here.

9. In “Reading a Table,” Cloud discusses various superstitions with her grandfather regarding crafting and sitting at tables. Later on, as an adult, Cloud has a supernatural experience with a medium. How do the supernatural themes and experiences in this story relate to the rest of the novel?

10. “Back to Beijing” is written in an epistolary format. The entire chapter is made up of letters to Su, making the conversation one-sided and unreliable. What clues are left in the letters that help the reader get a sense of what is really happening? Are there any clues in other chapters that might indicate what has happened here?

11. Music plays an important role throughout the novel. In the titular story, “Dear Chrysanthemums,” writing Combat the Typhoon preserves Mei’s life, and the narrator’s mother pushes the narrator to receive Chinese harp lessons from Mei. How does music impact the characters’ lives and relationships? What does this say about the nature of art?

12. Dear Chrysanthemums asks questions about family history, storytelling, and how small moments or actions can shape our personal history. How are all the characters in this novel recalling memory and shaping it as they retell it?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Fiona Sze-Lorrain is also a skilled poet, translator, and musician. Explore her website at www.fionasze.com, read her other works, and listen to her performances. Consider how these skills inform her writing.

2. Music is a key aspect of this novel. Look up the various pieces that are referenced in the chapters and listen to them as you read.

3. Navigate your own family history and explore how various family member’s journeys informed your experiences today.

About The Author

Photograph by Ferrante Ferranti

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a fiction writer, poet, musician, translator, and editor. She writes and translates in English, French, and Chinese. She is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Rain in Plural (Princeton, 2020) and The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), and fifteen books of translation. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Best Translated Book Award among other honors, she was a 2019–20 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination and the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. She lives in Paris and has performed worldwide as a zheng harpist.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 8, 2023)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668012987

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

Praise for Dear Chrysanthemums

"In nimble, evocative prose, these stories follow Chinese women from 1946 to 2016 as they brave moments of personal and national turmoil." New York Times Book Review

“A haunting debut… At once brutal and tender, this novel of women’s lives has the power to move and complicate our understanding of the long shadow cast by revolution as well as the inextinguishable longing every person has for beauty, love, art, and selfhood.” —Asymptote

"Dear Chrysanthemums may be short at just 160 pages, but the unique structure of connecting the stories through the many decades of modern Chinese history and some of the same characters gives it the feel of a longer novel." Asian Review of Books

“Attention to detail, especially with respect to numbers and music, is part of what makes the novel a joy to read… Sze-Lorrain pushes the boundaries of the Asian American novel into a global conversation... Dreamy and haunting...” —Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism

"Sze-Lorrain is to be praised for her ornate, intimate stories. Sze-Lorrain has a gift for capturing distinctive voices, and this shines through in all of her characters." —No Man is an Island

"Provocative... In Dear Chrysanthemums, women try to free their bodies to be instruments of life as much as death, of self-expression as much as silence..." Mekong Review

“Sze-Lorrain does not only shed light on the losses but also on the hypocritical nature of communist regimes. Perspectives on modern Chinese history like these are rare — and for a reason. A recommended read to those who wonder, but do not seek answers.” Mochi Magazine

“Inventive and powerful… [a] stunning novel…” —Soapberry Review

“Elegant… Sze-Lorrain's lyrical writing suggests that rebellion, even if it has tragic consequences in the present, might bear fruit in the future through artistic expression.” Shelf Awareness

“With shattering clarity, Sze-Lorrain teases apart the layers of complicity and survival that create a web of secrets, casting doubt on ever knowing the full truth behind each person’s story.” Booklist

“Graceful… Sze-Lorrain effortlessly evokes the spirit of each setting, be it the ardent fervor of nationalism during the Chinese Civil War or the seedy glamor of a dive bar in Paris, and she imbues her characters with haunting melancholy as victims ‘doomed to the mishaps of verity and the equally hurtful edges of fiction.’ This author is one to watch.” Publishers Weekly

"Sze-Lorrain excels in the lyrical mode as her attention to sensory observation illustrates how seemingly minor details such as the play of light from a shattered stained-glass window or the geometrically interlocking joints in a table can become microcosmic worlds if one knows how to look. Weaving these details together with an orchestral sensibility, the novel serves as a multilayered meditation on intergenerational trauma, memory, and resilience... By turns delicate and wild, this novel will linger like a chrysanthemum’s fragrance long after the last page." Kirkus

“In Dear Chrysanthemums, Fiona Sze-Lorrain collects the shards of modern Chinese history and builds a prismatic, gorgeously intimate story of women who face impossible choices and losses in order to survive. Unflinching and haunting, the novel is a vivid portrayal of disillusionment and exile. Step by step, Sze-Lorrain constructs an intricate and deeply moving web that will leave you stunned by the end.” —Tsering Yangzom Lama, author of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, shortlisted for the 2022 Giller Prize

“How can a book be simultaneously so beautiful and so heartbreaking? Dear Chrysanthemums explores the repercussions of the major events of modern Chinese history—the Chinese civil war, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre—as they echo throughout lives in the diaspora. Sze-Lorrain’s storytelling is graceful yet fierce—this is an important novel about histories that have changed the world.”
—Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Green Island and Water Ghosts

"Dear Chrysanthemums weaves together the stories of Asian women whose lives are shaped, with and without their knowledge, by the storm of history and cultural upheaval. The political is always personal in this remarkable debut, in which the practice of art—dance, music, writing, even the art of cooking—is opposed to oppression, violence, loneliness, displacement, and death. With uncompromising detail, in language that is at once precise and evocative, author Sze-Lorrain takes us inside the individual struggles of her characters to reveal fascinating patterns of connection and hidden truth."
—Mary Helen Stefaniak, author of The World of Pondside and The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

"I read this book with my heart in my throat. Taken one by one, each of these delectable stories offers an intimate, sensuous portrait of the life of otherwise mysterious girls and women, their desires and obsessions and griefs. Taken as a whole, the novel is a heady, energetic, global mosaic that conveys just how deeply one human soul can relate to another."
—Susanna Daniel, author of Sea Creatures and Stiltsville

"Just beneath the precisely-rendered quotidian world of these linked narratives lies a fathomless well of menace. Given this, Sze-Lorrain seems to ask, what are life’s chances?"
—Frederick Turner, author of The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years and 1929: A Novel of the Jazz Age

"Exquisite… Dear Chrysanthemums achieves the aesthetic ambitions of a novel with lyrical prose and imagery. Sze-Lorrain probes into our complex, volatile society, expressing her thought and lucidity."
—Ma Jian, author of China Dream, The Dark Road, and Beijing Coma

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images