August 9, 2019
Genre/Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Asian-American Fiction, Family Life, Mystery, Sisters
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What happened to the eldest daughter, Sylvie Lee?
That is the mystery that drives the plot of this complicated family drama.
A Chinese immigrant family, the Lees were too poor to keep their firstborn, Sylvie, and the parents sent her to the Netherlands where she was raised by her grandmother until she was nine. When Sylvie rejoined the Lee family in New York City, Amy was four years old. Sylvie helped raise Amy while their parents worked long hours to support their family.
Sylvie marries and during a recent solo trip she takes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother, she disappears. Amy adores her beautiful and confident older sister and feels obligated to do everything in her power to find her. Filled with determination, she bravely sets out on her own journey to the Netherlands. While there, she discovers the truth about her family and their secrets.
Amazon Rating (August): 4.2 Stars
Culture and Setting: A Chinese immigrant family in New York City and Amsterdam is an interesting set of time and place for a story. The cultural aspects and complications are thoughtfully shared by an “own voices” author.
Characters and Point of View: A multilayered story, Searching For Sylvie Lee is told from three perspectives: Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. It’s understandable that their relationships are complex as each of them has a different primary language: Sylvie, Durch; Amy, English; and Ma, Chinese. Each character is complicated and we gain an understanding of their actions and thinking as the effects of immigration, childhood trauma, self-esteem, jealousies, culture, parental decisions, racism, poverty, secrets, and language barriers are explored. Although the story can be categorized as a mystery/thriller, it is also character-driven. Sometimes these characters are not completely likable.
Plot: The mystery of what happened to Sylvie Lee drives this compelling story. There were times that I felt the action lagged a bit, but the variables of culture and complex characters kept me engaged. Amy and I both wanted to find out what happened to Sylvie. Candidly, I was surprised and saddened by the ending because it felt a bit out of character.
Themes: Thoughtful themes include complicated family, sacrifice, living in a different culture, sibling loyalty, racism, friendship, jealousy, language barriers, and family secrets.
Recommended: Searching for Sylvie Lee is a solid, well-written story that I can recommend to readers who appreciate a culturally diverse story, for those who are looking for character-driven mysteries, and for fans of the author. Even though it is poignant, heartfelt, and sad, it would make an interesting book club selection because of various discussion possibilities.
My Rating: 4 Stars
Meet the Author, Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok is the New York Times and internationally bestselling, award-winning author of Searching for Sylvie Lee (The Today Show Book Club Pick), Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in twenty countries and taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world. She has been selected for numerous honors, including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and the Sunday Times Short Story Award international shortlist. She is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese, and English, and studied Latin for seven years. Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She currently lives in the Netherlands.
Have you read Searching for Sylvie Lee or is it on your TBR?
Have you read other work by Jean Kwok?
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