A dazzling novel of one of America's most celebrated photographers, Dorothea Lange,

exploring the wild years in San Francisco that awakened her career-defining grit, compassion, and daring.

MS. Magazine

New York Times
Best of Summer 2021

Oprah's Best
Historical Fiction of 2021

"Rich and rewarding."
Publishers Weekly

“To take a truly good picture you need to learn to see, not just look.”

In 1918, a young and bright-eyed Dorothea Lange arrives in San Francisco, where a disaster kick-starts a new life. Her friendship with Caroline Lee, a vivacious, straight-talking Chinese American with a complicated past, gives Dorothea entrée into Monkey Block, an artists' colony and the bohemian heart of the city. Dazzled by Caroline and her friends, Dorothea is catapulted into a heady new world of freedom, art, and politics. She also finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with the brilliant but troubled painter Maynard Dixon. Dorothea and Caroline eventually create a flourishing portrait studio, but a devastating betrayal pushes their friendship to the breaking point and alters the course of their lives.

The Bohemians captures a glittering and gritty 1920s San Francisco, with a cast of unforgettable characters, including cameos from such legendary figures as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, and D.H. Lawrence. A vivid and absorbing portrait of the past, it is also eerily resonant with contemporary themes, as anti-immigration sentiment, corrupt politicians, and a devastating pandemic bring tumult to the city—and the gift of friendship and the possibility of self-invention persist against the ferocious pull of history.

As Dorothea sheds her innocence, her purpose is awakened and she grows into the artist who would create pictures—like her iconic Depression-era photograph, Migrant Mother—that would break the hearts and open the eyes of a nation. 


About The Bohemians

new york times best of summer 2021

oprah's best historical fiction of 2021 pick

Indiebound bestseller


ideas and inspirations behind the book 

A Pictorial Imagining


Spring came early in 1906, chilly and damp. For months the Chinatown papers had been printing detailed predictions about the chaos and calamity to come. It would be a time of wild reversals, the likes of which descended on the world only every sixty years. The residents of Tangrenbu, San Francisco’s Chinese quarter, did not doubt the dire predictions or the futility of preparing for what was to come.

One night in the first week of April, Donaldina Cameron—or Lo Mo, “Old Mother,” as she was known to the girls of 920 Sacramento Street, or “the White Devil” to those irked or inconvenienced by her work—rescued five girls from a brothel on Jackson Street.

read an excerpt

A Guide to Bohemian San Francisco

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"It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco." 
-Oscar Wilde 

Disappear Into. . .

georges Barbier


San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese came to the country in the 1800s and were instrumental in building America's railroads and other infrastructure. After the Gold Rush, many settled in San Francisco, where they were confined, as a matter of law, to this district. Chinatown was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fires. These photographs show it as it was in the 1920s, the time period in which The Bohemians takes place and after it had been rebuilt to serve, in part, as a tourist attraction.

A new city can change you, in the way a friend can change you, and there are moments in life where both happen at once. San Francisco was such a point of intersection for Dorothea Lange. 

The Bohemians focuses on a time when she wasn’t yet an icon, but rather a young woman finding her way forward through life. In writing it, I wanted to think about what had made her who she became. I wanted to explore the beginnings of her career, her start as a photographer at a time when photography wasn’t commonly thought of as art or documentary. I wanted to trace how her training as a high-society portrait photographer prepared her for what came next: her life’s work documenting ordinary and often unseen people. And I wanted to explore the ways that San Francisco, and California more broadly, transformed her sense of herself as both a woman and a photographer.

-dorothea lange

“I found myself in San Francisco.”

Read my
Author's note

"A camera is a tool for seeing without a camera."
-Dorothea Lange

read her story→

prev  |


Dorothea Lange landed in San Francisco in 1918. The people she met there-Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Consuelo Kanaga-left life-long impressions on her. Get to know the larger-than-life personalities behind the novel's characters.

the real bohemians

meet the full cast

prev  |


Dorothea Lange landed in San Francisco in 1918. The people she met there-Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Consuelo Kanaga-left life-long impressions on her. Get to know the larger-than-life personalities behind the novel's characters.

the real bohemians

meet the full cast

"I let my hands drop to my sides and looked at my reflection more closely. The dress was a low-necked cocktail gown, robin’s egg blue. Voluptuous, rich, intoxicating. Silk—it had to be. The dress was a bit loose in the chest and I’d never worn anything like it, not by a mile. Not by ten miles. But it was very beautiful and, anyway, didn’t I want a change? Wasn’t that the point of leaving home in the first place?"

The Bohemians

“You’ll never look at a Dorothea Lange photograph the same way after reading Darznik’s compelling portrait of the trailblazer who carved a glorious path through 1920s San Francisco. Darznik doesn’t flinch when confronting the parallels to today, whether racism or anti-immigrant sentiment, yet her impeccable research grounds the story firmly in the heyday of the Jazz Age. A superb read.”

Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue