Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok: A review

Searching for Sylvie Lee is a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Sylvie Lee is the older daughter in a family of Chinese immigrants to America. Her life in this country and with her parents has been complicated. When the family first came to America, the parents soon realized they were not equipped to take care of baby Sylvie because both had to work to survive and they had no family here to help them. So, they sent Sylvie back to her grandmother who had emigrated to The Netherlands and was living with a cousin and her husband there. Sylvie spent the first nine years of her life in the care of her grandmother.

Only then did her mother return to The Netherlands to claim her and take her back to America. By then, her parents had had a second daughter, Amy. Part of the bargain for having Sylvie rejoin her family was that she would help to care for Amy. But that was okay because she adored Amy and Amy adored her.

Sylvie had many problems to overcome, but she became a super-achiever. She was a Princeton undergrad and got an M.B.A. at Harvard before going on to a very successful career. She married a man from a rich family, a family which bought the newlyweds an apartment in Manhattan as a wedding gift. Sylvie was living the golden life.

Amy, meantime, was a bit of a late bloomer and was trying to find herself and decide what to do with her life. Their parents both continued to work hard. Then, a call came from The Netherlands. Grandma was dying. The family, especially Sylvie, needed to come if they wanted to say goodbye. Ma wanted to go and see her mother but Pa insisted that she stay. In the end, only Sylvie made the trip to see the people she had lived with for nine years and to be with her grandmother.

But while she is there and after the death of her grandmother, Sylvie disappears. She had packed her bags and the family assumes that she has returned to the United States. Only when Amy speaks to them asking about her sister do they begin to realize that Sylvie is missing.

This story is told to us by three narrators: Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. As we hear their different perspectives, it slowly becomes obvious that the family did not know Sylvie at all. They did not understand the torments she went through to make a successful life and they did not know that that life had fallen apart. Her marriage had failed and she had lost that high-powered job she had. She was hanging on by her fingernails but had not felt able to confide in anyone.

And so the idea of searching for Sylvie takes on a double meaning; Amy goes to The Netherlands and searches for her sister's physical being, but the search also involves uncovering who that sister really was. No spoilers here, but the mystery is all about secrets and the lies we tell ourselves and those close to us. Does anyone ever really know another human being? 

Jean Kwok is a gifted writer. This is her third book but the first one of hers that I've read and I found it quite engrossing. There was one thing that bothered me and that was the conversations between characters. Perhaps the conversations were meant to capture the difficulty of conveying the essence of a language such as Chinese or Dutch translated into English, but they just seemed stilted and a bit offputting to me and that hindered my enjoyment of the narrative. Other than that rather minor quibble, I found nothing to complain of in a very absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


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