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.