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The Bohemians


The Bohemians

Jasmin Darznik, author of SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, returns with THE BOHEMIANS, a dazzling and timely reimagining of the life of Dorothea Lange, one of America’s first female photographers. Though Lange is remembered now for her documentary photography during the Great Depression, Darznik focuses the book on her start --- from hardscrabble Jersey girl to famous California portraitist, bringing to life post-earthquake San Francisco in the process.

When we meet Dorothea Lange, it is 1918, 12 years after the earthquake that flattened San Francisco and forced it to rise from the ashes with a new vigor. For years, Dorothea --- Dorrie --- has slaved away as a photographer’s assistant, dreaming of visiting Paris and starting her own studio. The war has put an end to her Parisian dreams, so she takes a chance on a cross-country train ride to California...where she is immediately robbed of every last cent she has saved for the past two years. Armed with nothing but her camera, Dorrie spends the night sleeping on a beach. The next day, she strikes off on an unsuccessful job hunt, but ends up meeting her destiny: Caroline Lee, an Asian American woman with striking green eyes, an endless wealth of pride, and the drive and connections to help Dorrie settle into town.

"Darznik reminds us that history does indeed repeat itself, all while providing her readers with the perfect role models to make sure that we fall on the right side of history, no matter the issue."

Dorrie, having already sold her camera for $40, cannot believe her luck when she meets Caroline, who immediately takes Dorrie under her wing. Caroline buys Dorrie her first real dinner in weeks and introduces her to some talented and eccentric friends, including Consuelo Kanaga, Ansel Adams and Maynard Dixon, the best painter in San Francisco. Caroline and her friends all reside in and work around Monkey Block, the city’s first fireproof and earthquake-resistant building, which has come to house the city’s Bohemians: artsy, worldly and inventive types who are more progressive in their views on life, capitalism and war. Caroline’s introduction to this world is a culture shock, but one that she meets with eagerness and curiosity, most notably when it comes to tall, dark and handsome Maynard. Though he condemns materialism, Maynard makes a fine living and has always landed on his feet --- except when it comes to his “nervous” ex-wife, to whom he remains dysfunctionally joined.

Through hard work and dedication, Dorrie slowly starts to show her work to Caroline’s friends, and when Consuelo invites her to a camera club, she finally makes the connections that get her noticed. Drawing upon Caroline’s belief in her and her own drive as a tradeswoman (not an artist, at least not yet, as Dorrie seems to believe), she embarks on a partnership with a local investor who helps her start her own studio. As she makes a name for herself as a portraitist to the elite, her friendship with Caroline deepens. Through Caroline, she is exposed to San Francisco’s stark dichotomies: a fascination with Japonisme, but open racism toward the Chinese; a flourishing art scene, but starving artists; a glorious rebirth of culture and society, but a seedy underbelly focused on making money by selling girls and gentrification. Still, her friendship with Caroline is full of wonderful highs. Dorrie, always shy and ashamed of her childhood bout with polio that left her with a limp and a bad foot, starts to come out of her shell, donning beautiful silk dresses handmade by Caroline, dancing and even dating. The only problem is that she’s dating the wrong man.

The marriage of Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon is well-documented, but Darznik makes it come alive here. From Maynard’s carelessness and hypocrisy to Dorrie’s devotion to her work over everything else, their romance adds some edge to this luscious novel. While it does not hold a candle to the beautiful friendship between Dorrie and Caroline, it has some very real repercussions in Dorrie’s life and other relationships. Though we know early on that they do not remain friends, the story of their friendship is so heartfelt and powerful that it makes the mystery of what happened all the more compelling.

When I read SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, I was surprised and disappointed to see that Darznik did not get the critical acclaim she deserved. She’s a rich, cadenced writer, and her setting is every bit as wholly realized as her characters. Her female characters are flawed, ambitious and curious, and though they often push the limits of what is expected, they remain relatable and suffer real, tragic setbacks. I have never read about Dorothea Lange (or had the interest to, if I’m being honest), but THE BOHEMIANS is much more than a fictionalized biography.

In Darznik’s capable hands, Lange feels as real as you or me, and her story, even the fictional bits, brings her legacy to life. Even better, the author is able to find sharp, eerie similarities between her characters’ lives and current events, but her exploration of those is never heavy-handed or overdrawn --- which, of course, makes them all the more horrifying. From Anti-Asian racism to the Spanish Flu and even Fake News, Darznik reminds us that history does indeed repeat itself, all while providing her readers with the perfect role models to make sure that we fall on the right side of history, no matter the issue.

Perfect for readers of THE AGE OF LIGHT and VERA, THE BOHEMIANS is a spellbinding and captivating portrayal of post-earthquake San Francisco, the lives of artists and the power of female friendships.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 9, 2021

The Bohemians
by Jasmin Darznik

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 059312944X
  • ISBN-13: 9780593129449