Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: June 4, 2019
All her life Amy has looked up to her older sister Sylvie. She is the opposite of how Amy sees herself—pretty, intelligent, with a handsome husband, and fabulous job. She glows with success while Amy feels like lead—an inert, grey blob who still lives with her parents and has yet to make up her mind about what to do with her life. Add to this that Sylvie lived with their grandmother in Holland for years and she is an almost mythic creature of perfection in Amy’s eyes. This is the first we see of the Lee sisters in Jean Kwok’s new novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee. It isn’t until Sylvie goes back to Holland to see their dying grandmother and then disappears that Kwok twists the Rubik’s cube of their lives and all the bright colors fall out of alignment.
The Lee family history is a complicated one. Sylvie lived in Holland for seven years because, in their new lives, her parents could not keep her and work at the same time. They had recently emigrated from China to America, while their maternal grandmother went to Holland to live with a cousin who could afford to get her out of China. In return she was helping to raise their son and would also help with Sylvie. It is after Amy is born that her parents are able to afford to have their family all together, so Sylvie comes home. Now, Amy’s idolized older sister is missing and she is determined to find her even though it means traveling alone to a foreign country.
Kwok’s other novels (Mambo in Chinatown, Girl in Translation) dealt largely with the experience of being first generation American-Chinese and the crushing family expectations that go along with it. Searching for Sylvie Lee is outwardly focused on the perceptions and discrimination of the Chinese, not just in America, but in Europe as well. This aspect came as a surprise to me because I thought countries like Holland were more open and accepting of other cultures. Kwok quickly dismantles that myth.
Having so much of the novel set in Holland brings up another set of challenges in the novel. In her books Kwok immerses the reader in the patois and slang of the characters. When it is just one set of idioms (Chinese) then the translation to the English is manageable. As is the use of Chinese sayings and slang. In Searching, much of the novel is set in the Netherlands and Kwok dives into the peculiarities in their language. It has a more formalized feeling and doesn’t flow as easily. This means that much of the dialogue feels stilted and choppy. It detracts from the effortlessness I expect from Kwok.
Kwok does well in scattering hints about what lies beneath the surface in Sylvie’s life—from the overly affectionate uncle in Holland and his cold, almost cruel wife to a marriage that may not be as strong as it seems to a missing family treasure. These hints start cracking wide open before the novel reaches its midpoint and then even more mysteries pour out, giving the novel an almost frenetic feeling. There is plenty of action, but not enough understanding of motivation or character. So much was left unsaid, that the characters’ responses felt like overreactions until the very end when everything becomes clear. For someone not familiar with Kwok’s other novels and interested in more of a mystery/thriller Searching for Sylvie Lee stands up as fast-paced summer reading. I was looking for a simpler, more in-depth story of family.