Kate’s Review: “Searching for Sylvie Lee”

41716679Book: “Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

Publishing Info: William Morrow, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: A poignant and suspenseful drama that untangles the complicated ties binding three women—two sisters and their mother—in one Chinese immigrant family and explores what happens when the eldest daughter disappears, and a series of family secrets emerge, from the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Translation

It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family, flies to the Netherlands for one final visit with her dying grandmother—and then vanishes.

Amy, the sheltered baby of the Lee family, is too young to remember a time when her parents were newly immigrated and too poor to keep Sylvie. Seven years older, Sylvie was raised by a distant relative in a faraway, foreign place, and didn’t rejoin her family in America until age nine. Timid and shy, Amy has always looked up to her sister, the fierce and fearless protector who showered her with unconditional love.

But what happened to Sylvie? Amy and her parents are distraught and desperate for answers. Sylvie has always looked out for them. Now, it’s Amy’s turn to help. Terrified yet determined, Amy retraces her sister’s movements, flying to the last place Sylvie was seen. But instead of simple answers, she discovers something much more valuable: the truth. Sylvie, the golden girl, kept painful secrets . . . secrets that will reveal more about Amy’s complicated family—and herself—than she ever could have imagined.

A deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing, Searching for Sylvie Lee is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of an immigrant family. It is a profound exploration of the many ways culture and language can divide us and the impossibility of ever truly knowing someone—especially those we love. 

Review: Thank you to William Morrow for sending me an ARC of this novel!

While I can’t deny that I love me a good sudsy, melodramatic thriller, there is also something to be said for thriller/mysteries that have layers of pathos, introspection, and character exploration. A literary thriller can not only keep me entertained, it can also get me to thinking about deeper issues that I may not otherwise associate with the genre. Because of this, I was pleased to see that William Morrow had sent me an ARC of “Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok.

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” is absolutely a mystery. A Chinese-Dutch/American woman named Sylvie vanishes while visiting her dying grandmother in the Netherlands, and her younger sister Amy takes it upon herself to try and retrace her sister’s steps. She discovers many things about her sister that she never knew, along with things about her family that she never new either. The story is told through three perspectives. The first is Amy, who is searching for her sister. The second is Ma, Amy and Sylvie’s mother who is dealing with fear and grief in regards to her missing daughter. And the third is Sylvie, as we see her journey to The Netherlands and the things that were going on in her life before and during her trip, and up to her disappearance. The three perspectives come together in a way that tells a broader picture, and shows how and why Sylvie would vanish in the way that she did. Kwok did a masterful job of balancing all three perspectives, and made sure that they all added something to the final story in meaningful ways.

I also enjoyed the setting of this book. While there are a number of parts in New York City, it’s the setting of The Netherlands that made this book feel more unique to me. I admittedly have not much cultural knowledge about this country (though I do hope to visit and learn someday), but seeing Amy and Sylvie and their distant relatives living day to day lives and situations was something that was unexpected for me. So too did I enjoy Kwok’s examinations of race within this cultural context, as Sylvie and the Tan family are perhaps not always targeted, per se, but always noticed for their appearances, and not necessarily in positive ways. The little cuts of microaggressions within the narrative were effective and upsetting, and Kwok never felt a need to explain, just to show, which to me was all the more powerful. All three women focused on have their experiences of being Othered, but have experiences beyond that that are also damaging, be it because of their gender, the cultural expectations, or their expectations they have for each other.

And that is why the true heart of this book is that of the three women themselves. Seeing their different perspectives also added a layer to the narrative that elevated this book from simple mystery to familial tragedy. Ma is an immigrant who has been in a tumultuous marriage, and has watched her two daughters grow up and away from her. She had to make hard decisions to support her family, and those decisions have haunted her as her children have pulled away. Amy has always felt like the disappointment child, as Sylvie has been a vivacious, beautiful, and successful presence in her life, and has self esteem and confidence issues. But in turn Sylvie has had to come to terms with being raised away from her immediate family for so long, only to be ripped from the life she knew and thrown back in with them, and had to contend with the emotional trauma of it. She doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, as she feels Dutch in America but is seen as the Other in Holland because of her race. It’s Sylvie’s story that packs the most emotional punch, as she appears to be caught between the different expectations of those around her, and the life that she has versus the life that she wants. All of these women have held secrets from each other, and when they come out bit by bit the fallout and damage is almost too much to bear. This is a mystery, but it’s also an examination of identity, be it familial or cultural, and that makes it all the more emotional.

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” is a heart-rendering novel that I really enjoyed. The writing is superb, the themes are intense, and the mystery is well plotted out.

Rating 8: A story about family, secrets, identity, and sisterhood, “Searching for Sylvie Lee” is both a mystery and an examination of the conflicts we face alone, and the things we hide from our families.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Anticipated Literary Reads For Readers of Color 2019”.

Find “Searching for Sylvie Lee” at your library using WorldCat!

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