Searching for Sylvie Lee

Rating: ⭐
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.

Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.

To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.

When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.

This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.

Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.

Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.

Ask Again, Yes

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Jul. 2019)

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love to read. After last year’s fantasy-fest, I’ve been reading a lot of different stuff, much of which falls into the general and lit fiction genres and I’ve really been enjoying it. Ask Again, Yes gives me so many vibes from Little Fires Everywhere (even the cover looks the same!), but it definitely holds its own in the genre.

Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families that grew up together in New York state and the impact and consequences of their actions over 4 decades. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope worked together for a brief time in the police force and end up living next door to one another in Gillam. Both their wives are pregnant around the same time and while Lena Gleeson gives birth to 3 daughters, Anne Stanhope struggles with fertility before eventually giving birth to a son, Peter. Anne never got along with the Gleeson’s and when her son, Peter, and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, become best friends, all parents struggle with it, eventually leading to a tragic event in Peter and Kate’s 13th year.

Eventually everyone goes their own separate ways, but the consequences of that night ripple through everyone’s lives for years after. It’s not a fast moving story and I could definitely see some people struggling with it, but Keane explores a lot of different themes and I thought the book was super insightful into different human behaviours.

Ask Again, Yes explores a lot of different questions. Can we ever escape the past? Can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us? Are we really capable of change? Are our behaviours learned or inherited? It’s a sad read at times and hopeful at others. But what I really loved was how well developed and how genuine every single character was. When it gets down to it, I didn’t actually have very much in common with any of the characters, but their thoughts, emotions, and reactions are all incredibly relatable. On paper their relationships look great and if you try to articulate how they aren’t, it’s really hard, and yet you understand why some of the characters make such bad decisions.

As someone who is getting married within the month, I was so anxious reading about some of the relationships and marriages in this book. More than one marriage is challenged; some of them fail, others survive. But what made it so scary was that I felt most of the problems in the relationships were solvable, and yet I understood why someone might choose to walk away from that relationship anyways. A scary thought when you’re getting ready to walk down the aisle yourself, but impressive for an author. She has incredible insight into human nature and I had no trouble believing that the characters would act the ways they did.

Overall I didn’t think this book had quite the charm of Little Fires Everywhere. I think they both had a lot of interesting things to say, but Ask Again, Yes does drag in some parts, whereas I always felt propelled forward by the narrative in Ng’s books. But it still explores a lot of relevant themes and I found it a little more realistic in its character portrayals. Mental Illness is a big part of this book, although I struggle to verbalize what the theme was. Mostly it was just something that was present throughout the book. Keane never tells us how to feel about it, but does demonstrate how our feelings on mental illness have grown over the decades. It’s not something to be ignored and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Recommend to lovers of character-driven stories.

Home Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2017 (read July 2019)

While Home Fire was already on my TBR, it was a bit of an impulse purchase on Audible for me because I liked the narrator (so important!). I’m not sure what I was expecting from it, but I ended up being really impressed by this book.

Home Fire tells the story of an immigrant family that struggles to overcome the heartbreak of the past and be accepted as immigrants in the current political climate in the UK. After the death of her parents, Isma is forced to put her dreams on hold to take care of her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. But now that the twins are grown, she decides to pursue greater education in America, where she meets Eamonn, son of Britain’s home secretary.

The narrative follows Isma, Eamonn, and each of the other family members in turn. Isma is detained at the airport on her way to America, thanks to the tight security standards of the home secretary and her status as the daughter of a known jihadi. She befriends Eamonn and is confused by her feelings for him knowing the impact of his father’s policies on her and her family. But when Eamonn returns to the UK and is introduced to the rest of Isma’s family, the lives of these two very different immigrant families becomes further entwined.

Home Fire was a lot more political than I was expecting and super relevant with what is happening under Donald Trump’s policies in America and in the UK, post Brexit. But it also had a lot of heart and despite it being a relatively short book, Shamsie writes some deep and nuanced characters. I liked that this examined both sides of immigration policies, looking at a really controversial topic like jihad and the far-reaching impacts. I definitely didn’t go into this expecting to feel empathy for someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS.

What made this such a strong read for me was the characters (I live for character driven stories, so no surprise there). Initially I was frustrated when the perspectives kept switching, because I wasn’t expecting it and wanted to return to earlier characters, but looking at this one family and their story from so many perspectives is what gave the book such depth. They had a richly imagined history and each character already felt like a fully formed individual by the time I first met them. They are all extremely flawed, but it’s really what made them so believable as individuals.

To add another level to the story, Home Fire is parroted as a “modern day Antigone”. Now I read Antigone in high school, but I’m pretty foggy on the details so I had to do a bit of googling to remind myself. It is pretty loosely related, but does raise some relevant points from this ancient play. To what level will our xenophobia and othering go so that we can’t even see those who are different as human anymore? Can we not grant someone their humanity even in death, having no empathy for the people the dead leave behind?

A thoughtful and cleverly written book. I sped through it as an audiobook.

The Place on Dalhousie

Rating:
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Fiction, New Adult
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read Jun. 2019)

Okay, first things first, it breaks my heart that this book is not currently available in Canada or the US. Send us the love please! I’ve been dying to read this since it came out 2 months ago (lol, it felt WAY longer). I finally broke down and ordered a copy from Book Depository, which is the only place us North Americans can get it as far as I can find. It is $30, which was the main reason I was reluctant to order it, but so worth it! The Place on Dalhousie was everything I was looking for from a Marchetta book and I loved it!

This is the third book in Marchetta’s companion series that starts with Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. In honour of her new book, I re-read Saving Francesca and read The Piper’s Son for the first time. Believe it or not, I think this may be my favourite of the three!

Saving Francesca introduces us Francesca and her group of friends that carry us through all three novels. The Piper’s Son is about Tom Mackee’s story and The Place on Dalhousie focuses on Jimmy Hailler. I struggled with parts of The Piper’s Son because I found the story and characters a little hard to follow at times, but The Place on Dalhousie was perfection. We’re introduced to two new characters, Rosie and Martha, who carry the story with Jimmy. This book has a lot of angst and heartbreak, but God, it was just so good!

Jimmy and Rosie meet in a flood in rural Australia while they are both skirting their lives and responsibilities back home in Sydney. Jimmy has always lamented never really having a family and Rosie is dealing with the death of both of her parents over the past few years. They connect briefly and then both go their own ways, not realizing the profound impact their meeting will have on one another in the future.

Rosie returns to Sydney to stake her claim on her father’s house. Seb spent years re-building the house on Dalhousie Street for her and her mom, only to have her mother pass away from cancer before the house is completed. Seb then re-marries less than a year after the death of her mother to Martha, and since Seb’s death, both Martha and Rosie are dealing with their grief, dislike of one another, and their claim on the place on Dalhousie.

I don’t want to go any further into the plot, but this story had a the markings of a good Marchetta book. It’s a character driven, family drama, made all the more special to me by the fact that it’s a new adult book rather than a young adult book. It features all kinds of friendships and relationships and it will make you feel so many things for all of the characters. I loved returning to Jimmy’s group of friends and getting to meet new friendships from Martha and Rosie’s lives. This is a book about grief, family, and growth. We don’t have to be defined or held hostage by the past. We get to make our own decisions and decide how we let the things that happen to us and around us impact our lives.

Exactly what I was hoping for from a Melina Marchetta book. Recommend to all her fans!

The Piper’s Son

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2010 (read May 2019)

I am getting lax in my reviews lately. I finished The Piper’s Son about a week and a half ago and I’ve been putting off writing my review about it. I just re-read Saving Francesca and I was really excited to read The Piper’s Son, which is the only Melina Marchetta book I haven’t read, save for her newest book, which just came out.

I liked but didn’t love Saving Francesca on my first read through, but loved it when I recently re-read it. I’m wondering if I might have a similar experience with The Piper’s Son. I definitely liked it, but I did struggle to get into it for most of the novel. I love Marchetta’s writing style, but sometimes her books are hard to process on the first read through because of her unique style. I feel like Marchetta never starts her story at the beginning. I feel like her characters are already fully realized when she actually starts writing them. She doesn’t waste time on introducing us to her characters and their strengths and flaws, but rather throws them at you in all of their brokenness and let’s you try and sort out the pieces. It’s an interesting style because it is very reminiscent of real life. People are hugely influenced by all of the experiences that came before you and the result that you get is an individual that is flawed in ways you can’t quite understand because you don’t know their story. Eventually those things are teased out as you get to know someone and it becomes easier to understand how they grew into the person they are, but upon first meeting, you have no context for their behaviour.

This is how I felt with Tom and Georgie. Both of them had a lot of history and were obviously broken by it, but I didn’t understand what events happened to them to get them to that point. Tom is drowning his sorrows in things that only make him hurt more and Georgie is stuck in the past. Heartbroken and unable to forgive or move forward with her new reality. Both family members are grieving.

This is exactly the kind of character-driven story that I love. We can’t rely on the plot in this book at all, only on where the characters will take us. They make mistakes, but are human. Stuck in the past and unable to forgive the family members and people who have hurt them. I did struggle with the complete lack of plot and I struggled to feel empathy for Tom or Georgie early in the novel. I did really like the story and the characters, but I think it could maybe have used a little more plot to carry the story.

One thing I still loved though was Marchetta’s unflinching commitment to friendships. I think Marchetta writes friendships better than any author I’ve read. There’s no pinpointing the moment when Marchetta’s characters become friends. They are either already presented as fast friends with a history, or she weaves a brilliant story arc in which subtle, but lasting, friendships develop between her characters. I loved seeing all the characters from Saving Francesca flit through this book and each support Tom in their own way. The way Marchetta writes friendships makes you ache for someone who knows you so well. She’s not afraid to have her characters challenge one another and do ugly things, but those things are always deeply rooted in their character and hurts. She’s not afraid to test her characters and their relationships and I love watching those friendships grow stronger as a result.

So overall I feel like this review is a whole lot of posturing about nothing. I think I may need to pick this book up in another year or so to see what I can glean from it having already gained the perspective about Tom and Georgie’s characters. I can see how this book isn’t for everyone, but it is also largely beloved, so there’s something powerful going on with these characters.