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.