The Bohemians

Written by Jasmin Darznik
Review by Sarah Johnson

In her second novel, Darznik presents a shimmering portrait of little-known histories: that of an iconic American photographer, a culture, and a city, all at a time of pivotal transformation.

In May 1918, 22-year-old Dorothea “Dorrie” Lange arrives in San Francisco, full of ambition and dreams. Almost immediately, she’s robbed of her savings and forced to hock her beloved Graflex camera to survive. Through her tight friendship with the effervescent Caroline Lee, a Chinese American woman who speaks unaccented English and wears her own beautifully tailored clothing, Dorrie gets introduced to Monkey Block, a four-story structure that withstood the 1906 fire and earthquake and hosts an enclave of bohemians: talented and freewheeling artists, writers, and performers. Following months of hard work, Dorrie opens her own portrait studio, with Caroline as her assistant, and weighs pursuing a relationship with Western painter Maynard Dixon. The story compellingly narrates her journey as she learns to observe places and people with a candid eye and present them as they wish to be seen.

“What had struck me most about San Francisco so far wasn’t the newness of the place—that I’d expected—but the absence of the past,” Dorrie relates. In many ways, San Francisco seems to be a city where difference is celebrated, but it treats its Chinese residents abominably and doesn’t acknowledge the incongruity; Caroline has developed a tough exterior to protect against internal pain. As a character, Caroline has a basis in history (Lange did work alongside a Chinese woman), and her personality as imagined by Darznik is deeply multifaceted and unforgettable. Donaldina Cameron and Consuelo Kanaga are among other real-life secondary figures whose courageous lives are worth heralding. With its themes of female self-invention and empowerment, xenophobia, and people’s enforced separation during the Spanish flu pandemic, readers will find this novel uncannily relevant for today’s world.