ABOUT THE BOOK:
It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family,
Amy, the sheltered baby of the Lee family, is too young to remember a time when her parents were newly immigrated and too poor to keep Sylvie. Seven years older, Sylvie was raised by a distant relative in a faraway, foreign place, and didn’t rejoin her family in America until age nine. Timid and shy, Amy has always looked up to her sister, the fierce and fearless protector who showered her with unconditional love.
But what happened to Sylvie? Amy and her parents are distraught and desperate for answers. Sylvie has always looked out for them. Now, it’s Amy’s turn to help. Terrified yet determined, Amy retraces her sister’s movements, flying to the last place Sylvie was seen. But instead of simple answers, she discovers something much more valuable: the truth. Sylvie, the golden girl, kept painful secrets
A deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing, Searching for Sylvie Lee is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of an immigrant family. It is a profound exploration of the many ways culture and language can divide us and the impossibility of ever truly knowing someone—especially those we love.
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Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok is a 2019 William Morrow publication.
A poignant family saga highlighting cultural, gender, and generational divides.
Sylvie is a thirty-three-year old woman of Chinese descent, who up until she was nine years old, lived in the Netherlands with her extended family- which included her maternal grandmother, her mother’s cousin, Helena, her husband, Willem Tan, and their son, Lukas. She is the daughter of ‘Ma and Pa’, the sister of Amy, the wife of Jim. She’s vibrant, focused, brilliant and highly successful… And… she’s missing.
Sylvie initially flew to Holland to care for her ailing grandmother. After her grandmother passes away, it was presumed Sylvie had returned to New York, but no one has seen her. Amy is alerted by Lukas that Sylvie has vanished, which sets off alarm bells in Amy’s mind. After checking the usual places, it becomes clear Sylvie never left the Netherlands. So, Amy travels to Holland to search for her, encountering her extended relatives for the first time.
She is immediately struck by their apathy towards Sylvie’s absence, the hostility she senses from Helena, and the mysterious behavior Sylvie exhibited before she disappeared. But her cousin’s blasé attitude is nothing compared to their demand that Amy not seek outside help- such as from the police. As Amy works to uncover the truth about her sister, she discovers a part of Sylvie she never knew existed.
The story is a very taut, suspenseful mystery, but not in the traditional sense. Where is Sylvie? Did she take off deliberately? Why would she do something so out of character?
While this mystery unfolds, at the core of the story is a very complex family drama. ‘Ma’ immigrated to the US, but the adjustment was very hard, leading her to take the Tans up on their kind offer to have Sylvie come live with them. She never intended for Sylvie to stay so long and had no idea how difficult things became for her before she returned home to New York to live with parents again.
Amy also has no idea what Sylvie’s life was like in the nine years she spent in Holland. She loves her sister dearly, but is also a little jealous of her, too. Could Sylvie be a bit envious of Amy, as well?
Besides the exploration of sisterly bonds, the story also addresses the hardships immigrants endure, the racism the family encountered, both in Holland and in New York. These events shaped them as a family unit and as individuals.
Amy’s persistent search for answers unveils layers of sorrow, secrets, resentments, and a host of bitter regrets.
The novel is fast paced, but everything remains shrouded in mystery until the very end, which tempted me to start over and read it again so I could view it from with an insider’s advantage.
The mysteries and revelations emerge slowly, but the atmosphere becomes increasingly puzzling and alarming. Once the mystery is resolved, one is left to reflect upon the characters, their motives, limitations, desires, fears, and the perception of oneself that others may view differently.
While this book is categorized as a mystery, I strongly urge those familiar with the genre not to expect anything like a criminal investigation here. This is the desperate search for a missing person without the help of any official agencies. But, rest assured, the mystery of Sylvie Lee’s disappearance deepens as the story progresses, leaving one feeling on edge with ever growing sense of urgency.
However, for me, the cultural struggles of immigrating to another country, and the absolute poison of racism humming beneath the surface, along with the complex family dynamics, is what I’ll remember most about the journey.
It’s a heart wrenching tale with a valuable lesson tucked inside these pages, one that should give us all something to contemplate. Empathy is evidently a rare strait and one we should all try harder to develop. You never really know what someone is going through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…
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