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Dear Chrysanthemums

A Novel in Stories


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.

Composed of several interconnected stories, each taking place in a year ending with the number six, ironically a number that in Chinese divination 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, protestors, mothers and daughters, friends and enemies, all inexplicably connected in one way or another.

“Cooking for Madam 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,” 1966: A bidding 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.

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.

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 (May 2, 2023)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668012987

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Raves and Reviews

Praise for Dear Chrysanthemums 

“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 DreamThe Dark Road, and Beijing Coma

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