Saturday, 8 February 2020

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Published by William Morrow on the 4th June 2019.

S for my 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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 Lee is a wonderfully insightful novel of a fragmented family divided not only by their physical distance from each other, but also by language. Jean Kwok's use of different mother tongues really made this novel memorable for me because I love understanding how languages influence culture and vice versa. Within the Lee family Grandma speaks her Chinese dialect and perhaps a smattering of Dutch because she lives in the Netherlands with the cousins who took in her granddaughter Sylvie. Sylvie speaks Dutch first and Chinese second. Sylvie's birth mother, Ma, however, immigrated to New York and speaks Chinese, with English as a non-fluent second language. Ma's younger daughter, Amy, speaks American English first and Chinese second. Throughout the novel, which is written entirely in English, Kwok deftly switches points of view between these women and I was amazed at how they each convincingly speak in their own language to us readers. Through the use of different proverbs and maxims, rhythms and word orders I could instantly identify each language and, often, the speaker too. Searching For Sylvie Lee is a masterclass in writing communications!

That said though, what drives the mystery element of the story is a gaping lack of communication because no one knows why Sylvie has apparently disappeared from her perfect life. I was fascinated by how none of Kwok's characters seem to see themselves in the same way as their friends and family see them. This is particularly true of the sisters Sylvie and Amy who in some ways are reflections of each other, both envying their sister for qualities they fail to recognise in themselves.

So why not a full five star review? I did feel that the story lost its pace through the last quarter and, while it was still a good read, something of the spark was lost for me, especially through the whole Venice escapade. I had really grown to love the characters in their near-Amsterdam locale and was keen to try and unravel the ever more complex links woven between them, however I felt taking a group of on holiday negatively affected the narrative pace. This was a little disappointing because I then wasn't completely able to get myself back into the atmosphere in time to fully appreciate the ending. Overall, however, Searching For Sylvie Lee is an excellent portrait of human relationships and exploration of personal identity. Well worth a read!

Etsy Find!
by Corvidae Antique in
Stockport, England

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Jean Kwok / Mystery fiction / Books from Hong Kong


  1. Sounds like it was a good story even if it did lose pace in some parts.

    1. Yes, overall this is a good story and I enjoyed spending time with the characters

  2. Four stars is still good news and another one completed for the challenge!

    1. It was just how the last quarter unravelled that let this one down. For the first half it was easily a five star, but 4 is still very good for me.

  3. Always slightly excited when I see the Netherlands featured in any book as we are so small! This fragmented family story is a reality to so many people around the globe with immigration laws and I am glad that these books are getting written and stories told! It is so sad it happens, and a shame that the last quarter of the book runs out fo steam, but I am glad that read it.

    1. If you get around to reading this one, Olivia, I'd be interested in your take on the way Kwok does the languages