A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok- Feature and Review


A poignant and suspenseful drama that untangles the complicated ties binding three women—two sisters and their mother—in one Chinese immigrant family and explores what happens when the eldest daughter disappears, and a series of family secrets emerge, from the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Translation

It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family, flies to the Netherlands for one final visit with her dying grandmother—and then vanishes.

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 . . . secrets that will reveal more about Amy’s complicated family—and herself—than she ever could have imagined.

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.



Searching for Sylvie LeeSearching 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.

About Sylvie:

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…






Jean Kwok is the award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, 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. An instant New York Times bestseller, Searching for Sylvie Lee was selected for the Today Show Book Club and featured in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, CNN, The New York Post, The Washington Post, O Magazine, People, Entertainment Weekly and more. Jean has been chosen 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. 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. 

Learn more about Jean here:

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