Cover Image: Dear Chrysanthemums

Dear Chrysanthemums

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Member Reviews

Fiona Sze-Lorrain's Dear Chrysanthemums: A Novel in Stories is, as one might extrapolate, a bit of a puzzle. She offers readers richly detailed, specific moments in the lives of her characters—not necessarily in chronological order—and the reader has to construct these pieces to build for herself the underlying narrative. The stories are set in China, France, and the US and span a period from the mid-20th Century to the present.

I want to say both that
1. reading this book requires a willingness to be a bit frustrated
2. the pay-off in the end makes those frustrations worthwhile.

Sze-Lorrain trusts readers to come to this book with an internal sense of the timeline of recent Chinese history beginning just before the communist revolution, moving through the cultural revolution, the student uprisings in Tiananmen square, to today's more pragmatic and economically based relations between China and the rest of the world. The reader doesn't need to be an excerpt in any of this, but consulting Wikipedia before beginning reading and as needed during the book's progression certainly wouldn't hurt.

Dear Chrysanthemums is one of those books that offer a significant payoff in the end. The final story clarifies the relationships among the disparate characters so that an overview of the China's recent history as experienced by its citizens suddenly becomes clear, as if one has reached the apex of a string of hills and is looking out over a new landscape. And after that reading, comes all the interesting chewing on what Sze-Lorraine has given us, finding our own understandings of the book's characters and lessons. This is the phase I'm in now, and I'm quite enjoying it.

I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher via Net Galley; the opinions are my own.

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A literary dream, that’s what this novel segmented into stories, felt like. Dear Chrysanthemums floats. There is something reminiscent in this novel of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a kind of immortal quality that flows one life into another, connects what appear to be disparate loci — combined with a historicity that reminds me of Jung Chang’s seminal, biographical, non fiction work, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China about Chang’s mother and grandmother, women who lived and survived China’s imperial demise, revolution, Japanese occupation, and Communist Cultural Revolution.

The stories in this novel, seemingly unconnected at first, reveal an intimate connection in the end: the women who feature in them are ordinary women, servants, daughters, mothers. They are separated by time and space, but their desires and ambitions, fueled by the need to become individuals in their own right, fuse them together. There is tension between the women of each story, but there is also connection.

The novel crosses continents, spanning the globe from China to France, and across time. Each generation of woman encounters a different kind of struggle, but a struggle all the same, and the story of each them reveals a common desire to realize who they are and what they want from life and from the circumstances of their lives.

History plays a role here, shaping where the women begin and where they end, the trajectories of their journeys. Colonialism, conflict, and war shape their migrations, that is, their physical and metaphysical, subjective journeys towards themselves. The women in these stories are bound by history inasmuch as they are bound to each other and to their own individual desires.

For those who love historical fiction, literary layers to excavate, and strong and flawed female characters, this is the novel for you.

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AHH! I am so thankful to Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Scribner Books, NetGalley, and so many more for sending me both a physical copy and digital access to this collection of stories before publication day which is May 2, 2023.

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A slim volume that takes on big issues- quietly. These stories of Chinese women, all set in years that end in 6, take the reader through tumultuous times and trauma. We meet Madame Chiang Kai-Shek's cook, a ballerina taken from the stage during the cultural revolution, a pianist, and women who were at Tiananmen Square. It helps to know a bit about post WWII Chinese history. These are spare portraits but they carry a punch. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. For fans of literary fiction.

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Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for the e-ARC! I loved some of these short stories but for others, it was really hard to hold my attention. I did find the number 6 theme and the novel in stories formatting really interesting. Definitely an “it’s not the book it’s me” moment.

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Loved. Thank you for the digital copy, I ended up receiving a physical copy and will be reviewing on my socials that way. Thank you again for the digital ARC.

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In this novel in stories, Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s talent is not only cemented in her prose but also hinted by her instrument’s cameo. Sze-Lorrain is a celebrated guzheng harpist, as is the character Mei. In the story, Mei gets a reprieve from her thought reform labor, plucking chrysanthemums in the mountains, to play this instrument for Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon.

Each story is compelling and complete, but they are tied through personal connections. This sort of small-world hypothesis technique enriches the novel by enlarging the viewpoints.

It’s worth a visit to Sze-Lorrain’s website to listen as she plays the guzheng and reads her poetry. You can find her at fionasze dot com.

I extend my gratitude to Scribner and NetGalley for providing this eARC.

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