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Searching for Sylvie Lee

Review

Searching for Sylvie Lee

In the Lee family’s galaxy, no star shines quite as bright as their eldest daughter, Sylvie. Beautiful, cutthroat and powerful, Sylvie has the whole world in the palm of her hand --- so everyone is shocked when she disappears on a trip to the Netherlands. In Jean Kwok's new novel, Sylvie’s sister, Amy, retraces Sylvie’s steps to figure out the truth about her disappearance, her picture-perfect life and the family secrets that may have pushed her away.

SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE kicks off when Amy receives a frantic call from her cousin, Lukas, in the Netherlands. He is desperate to speak to Sylvie, but Amy is instantly confused as she believes that Sylvie is in the Netherlands with Lukas to visit their dying (now deceased) grandmother. When Lukas informs her that Sylvie left days ago, Amy and the rest of the Lees are frantic. Sylvie has always been so dependable, so loyal, so perfect. Where could she have gone? Following a confusing visit to the shockingly disheveled apartment that Sylvie shares with her handsome, wealthy husband, Jim, Amy decides that she has no other choice but to travel to the Netherlands to retrace Sylvie’s steps and bring her home.

"Part domestic suspense, part generational saga and all heart, SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE unfolds in an enthralling way that will upend all readers’ expectations."

In alternating chapters, we hear from Sylvie herself, starting one month before her disappearance as she is arriving in the Netherlands to visit her ailing grandmother. Unlike her sister, Sylvie was raised predominantly by her grandmother and cousins, the Tans, in her youth, and lived in the Netherlands with them from the time she was an infant until she was about nine years old. When she came to America, she had a two-year-old sister she did not know, and struggled to adapt to a new country that was technically her “real home,” as well as meeting her parents, who seemed foreign and uncaring (still a child, she couldn't understand why they didn’t want her when she was born).

Thus, Sylvie’s return to the Netherlands to visit her grandmother feels like both a homecoming and a funeral, and it dredges up some uncomfortable memories for her, including the odd behaviors of Helena and Willem Tan, her mother’s cousins who took her in as a child. While Willem was doting and full of love, Helena turned colder and meaner to Sylvie as she got older, often punishing her and demeaning her for seemingly no reason. At the same time, she catches herself growing closer and closer to Lukas, for whom she has strong feelings, but she cannot tell if they are strictly familial or romantic in nature.

As Kwok places her readers in the minds of both Sylvie and Amy, we are given starkly different perspectives of each sister. While Amy believes herself to be plain and dull, Sylvie is in awe of her sister’s musical talents and capacity for love. Meanwhile, Amy considers Sylvie to be perfect in every way, but Sylvie herself is weighed down by her childhood insecurities and the hurt she felt at being abandoned once by her real parents and later by her Netherlands family when she returned to America. Select chapters told from the girls’ mother’s point of view reveal the love she has for both daughters --- and her all-consuming regret over ever having sent Sylvie away. Kwok alternates perspectives seamlessly and poignantly, often presenting readers with what appears to be a terrible slight, only to turn the event in question on its head by examining it from another character’s eyes.

Feeling alone, awkward and abandoned by her sister, Amy steadfastly continues her search for Sylvie in the Netherlands. But some of Sylvie's stories don’t seem to match the truth, and Lukas is behaving strangely, as though he knows more than he is letting on. It seems that everyone has a different idea of who Sylvie really was, and Amy will have to pinpoint the truth of her sister’s character before she can really begin to search for Sylvie. Readers will find themselves flipping pages at an alarming rate to figure out what happened to Sylvie and why.

Part domestic suspense, part generational saga and all heart, SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE unfolds in an enthralling way that will upend all readers’ expectations. In addition to chronicling a family’s love and drama across generations and continents, Kwok provides readers with an illuminating portrait of the Lee and Tan families’ cultural identity. With a keen eye and a deft hand, she explores the ways that we mistreat those who are new to our country, and how even a booming, diverse city like New York can be archaic in its prejudices. At the same time, she brilliantly portrays the treatment of immigrants in other countries --- a topic often under-discussed in American fiction. As personal as the story of Sylvie Lee is, it is also reflective of the tumultuous, dissonant experience of immigrants in all countries where they are not totally accepted --- and the dangers of letting these cultural barriers remain.

As Amy says in the final pages of the book, “We are all ultimately unreliable storytellers of our own lives.” Her poignant observation provides the backbone of SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE, an unforgettable and powerful story of love, loss and truth.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 7, 2019

Searching for Sylvie Lee
by Jean Kwok

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0062834304
  • ISBN-13: 9780062834300