Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok is a must read…a wonderful immigrant story focused on family and secrets that is also an addictive and compelling mystery! Includes author Q & A…

Searching For Sylvie Lee

My Review:

A perfect combination of literary fiction and suspense, in Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok lets us inside the minds of Chinese immigrant sisters Sylvie, Amy and their Ma.  Smart, pretty and accomplished, Sylvie is the golden child in the family.  Having grown up with her grandmother in the Netherlands, she felt compelled to return there when Grandma became ill.  Younger sister, Amy, is shy and insecure.  When Amy hears that Sylvie has mysteriously disappeared, she has to pull it together to be strong, and travel overseas to find out what happened to her beloved big sister.

Ma’s relationships with her daughters are complicated; she immigrated to NYC when she and Pa were young and she was pregnant.  They were very poor and worked many jobs to stay afloat.  Once Sylvie was born they sent her to the Netherlands to be cared for by Ma’s mother, as they thought it would be a better life for her. The  feeling of rejection had a huge impact on Sylvie and her other relationships.  She stayed in Amsterdam for more than 8 years, and when Ma and Pa had another daughter, Sylvie returned to NY, yet she felt she was called home to be a babysitter for her younger sister, Amy.

Communication barriers and lack of understanding add to the tension of this story and is often the case with immigrant families.  The relationship with children can be strained and sacrificed when coming to a new country as the parents have a hard time learning the ways of the new home yet the kids haven’t lived any other way.

Ma’s communication skills are limited because she only speaks broken English, but her thoughts in Chinese are clear and strong.  Sylvie spent her formative years in Dutch culture, feeling loved by her Grandma and cousin and on unsettled ground with her aunt and uncle, and Amy was from NY, had hard working, supportive parents but struggled with a stutter and had a hard time expressing herself.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a story of love…the beauty and the pitfalls, the joy and the heartbreak.  An unexpected disappearance becomes a full on mystery, and pain, confusion and misunderstandings are the results of buried family secrets – unintentional hurt is inflicted all around, but does the truth come out too late?  

 A Chinese immigrant experience in NY and Amsterdam, Searching For Sylvie Lee is full of suspense and wonderful writing.  This is one of my favorite books of the year!

The idea to write about a missing person was inspired by author Jean Kwok’s brother.  Learn more about the devastating disappearance of Jean Kwok’s brother HERE

Q & A with Jean Kwok

Q:  What inspires you to write and how do you decide the format and genre?
A:  I always write about issues that mean a great deal to me personally. Searching for Sylvie Lee was inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved and brilliant brother. I changed the main character to a woman, Sylvie, to escape the gravitational force of the true story, and Sylvie, her younger sister Amy and Ma indeed took on their own lives. However, since I did want to write about a disappearance and the ways in which we are hidden from each other by language and culture, it was natural to shape this book as a mystery surrounding a suspenseful immigrant family drama. 
Q:  The backdrop for Searching For Sylvie Lee is an immigration story about a family.  How similar is your personal story?
A:  Like Sylvie, I’m a first generation Chinese American immigrant and my family was also very poor when we first came to this country. Although I wasn’t sent away to be raised by my grandmother the way Sylvie was, I saw firsthand what it was like for every able-bodied person in my family to work day and night just to make ends meet. Even though I did end up going to Harvard and Columbia, I was never considered the golden child in my family – that role was reserved for my brother, the one who disappeared. I was too bad at being a Chinese girl: terrible housekeeper and cook, too opinionated and independent. So when he vanished, I had the same feeling that Amy did, of needing to pull myself together to try to figure out what had happened to my beloved sibling. 
Q:  The Grandmother took responsibility for Sylvie as a baby and in the end Sylvie felt it was important to be with her when she was ill.  Typical family structure with traditional upbringing of the children by the parents was not the route this family took.  How did you come up with this scenario?  Can you tell us about your grandparents?
A:  I actually never met any of my own grandparents because they were left behind in China when we emigrated. However, as the youngest of seven children, I often felt like my parents were in some ways my grandparents too, since they were the age of my friends’ grandparents. I also know many people who either needed to send their children back to their grandparents to be raised because they couldn’t afford to keep them or were sent back themselves as children. So the loving relationship between Sylvie and Grandma is something I understand deeply, even though I didn’t know my own grandparents. I watched my own parents grow older and more frail.
Q:  I enjoyed all of the details that added to the richness of your story: the bike riding, the music lessons, the trip to Venice, the apple tart…where do you get your ideas?
A:  Actually, all of the instances of flirtatious Dutch men on bicycles actually happened to me, which is not as fun as it sounds because my biking skills are even worse than Amy’s. When a huge Dutch guy swung himself onto the baggage rack of my little bicycle as I rode by, I lost control and we almost dove into a canal, which was terrifying because like Sylvie, I can’t swim! I like to use incidents from real life in my books and I also enjoy interviewing people and adding slices of their lives. 
Q:  I love that each of your main characters, Sylvie, Amy and Ma express their points of view in alternating chapters and yet the reader is the only one that sees the full picture.  How did you decide to write it this way and what was your process?  Did you have to make an outline or organize in any way before you started?
A:  One of the questions that Searching for Sylvie Lee asks is, “How well do we truly know the people we love most?” In many immigrant families, the children adopt the dominant language of the country, English, while the parents still struggle with it, resulting in parents and children who no longer speak the same language fluently. I combined those two ideas by having the novel be told by three different narrators – Sylvie, Amy and Ma – all thinking in their own languages: Dutch, English and Chinese. Of course, the book’s written in English but since the inner dialogue is in each woman’s own mother tongue, we are able to get to know each of them in a way that the others can’t. So Ma thinking in Chinese is a much deeper, more complicated person than Amy, her own daughter, will ever know because Amy can only hear the Ma who speaks broken English.
I did outline the entire novel before I started writing. The release of information and clues is essential to the pacing of the book, so I had to figure out where to place the Facebook messages, newspaper articles, etc. to keep the reader turning the pages. Many details changed over the course of the novel but I was constantly backing up to check that the overall structure of the book was working well. 
Q:  Many of your characters have secrets and throughout the story you provide us with clues right up until we learn the truth.  Did the clues appear naturally or did you add them in after you wrote the book?  
A:  I planned everything from the very beginning and I did know exactly how the book would end. I personally need to know the ending in advance because the progression of the entire novel is shaped by the ending. I always hope that my work will be both entertaining and enlightening, so I want the reader to enjoy the ride. I’m anticipating the reader experience throughout so that the ending is hopefully both surprising and yet earned. 
Q:  Sylvie is smart and pretty and looked upon as a being successful…Amy is insecure and lacks direction, but deep down, it seems these sisters are more alike than different.   Can you give us some insight and tell us which one you relate to most?
A:  I definitely relate to both of the sisters. I have the same perfectionist drive as Sylvie but am sadly not as talented, so I can identify with Amy who always felt like she was in Sylvie’s shadow as well. In my family, I was never considered smart or successful – that was my brother, and yet, my brother and I loved each other so much. He always took care of me and when we were very poor, he was the person who gave me a blank diary and said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.” That was the beginning of my life as a writer. So the love that binds the two sisters is very real to me as well. 
Q:  How long did it take to write this book and did you have to make any majors changes during the revision process?
A:  It took about three years to write this novel and it really seemed to flow seamlessly. I sketched out the story and started writing. There were minor revisions along the way but it almost seemed to write itself. I have a wonderful editor who helped me enhance the relationships, and she also let me know when the foreign languages needed to be pruned back a bit, that sort of thing, but basically, the book has remained unchanged from its initial conception. 
Q:  This book is a beautiful combination of compelling fiction with well developed characters, varied and descriptive background settings and an addictive mystery.  Do you recommend any other books that have a similar storytelling or other authors that have accomplished the same? 
A:  Thank you for your kind words. I think that Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a wonderful novel that is similar in that it’s a page-turner wrapped around an immigrant family. This novel about a murder trial involving a Korean immigrant family after their medical facility explodes is a suspenseful, deep read. 
Q:  Can we expect another page turner that takes us on a journey from you?
A:  I’m working on a new novel right now and it’s about a young Chinese American immigrant woman who comes to the US to start a new life, but that fresh start is threatened when she gets involved with her white English teacher and he dies in a suspicious accident involving her. So indeed, I hope this will be another page turner that deals with deeper issues of immigration, culture, race and language. 

Watch Jean Kwok’s interview on the Today Show HERE

CLICK HERE for other great book club choices.

Goodreads Summary

Jean Kwok

About the Author:

Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling, award-winning author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in eighteen 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 EFG 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 with her husband, two boys and three cats.

Learn more about Jean here:
www.jeankwok.com
https://www.facebook.com/JeanKwokAuthor

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Hippie by Paulo Coelho

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My Review:

I loved The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and was hoping his new book would feel as important.  In Hippie, Paulo Coelho writes a story based on his own life experiences, his relationships, political views and personal values, and his adventures of travel and terror of kidnapping.  Throughout this book he has injected his thoughtful ideologies and gives us a description of the ways of the world in the 1970s.

Even though Coelho had gotten himself into trouble often as a young man, it seems as if he was a deep thinker.

“We don’t choose the things that happen to us, but we can choose how we react to them.”

Paulo embarks on a journey from Bolivia to Peru, Chile and Argentina and then to Amsterdam, where he meets Karla, a young girl looking for a travel companion to Nepal.  They take the Magic Bus across Europe and Asia to Katmandu.  We learn about their relationship and the other travelers on the trip.  With no formal plans for the future, what today we might see as a lack of responsibility, the idea of free love and the benefit of simplicity of travel, Paulo communicates his experiences that enriched his life and helped him on his search for meaning.

I particularly enjoyed reading about his discovery of dance and his transformative experience with Hare Krishna dancing and singing in the street.

“Dancing transforms everything, demands everything, and judges no one.  Those who are free dance, even if they find themselves in a cell or a wheelchair, because dancing is not the mere repetition of certain movements, it’s a conversation with a Being greater and more powerful than everyone and everything.  To dance is to use a language beyond selfishness and fear. ”

Even though I enjoyed learning a little more about Paulo Coelho, his rebellious stage and his emotional journey to find the meaning of life, for me, Hippie fell flat. Written like a story, but based on his real life, I didn’t think it portrayed Coelho’s vibrant youth and his travels in a compelling and powerful way.  There were tidbits of insight and lessons but the characters were not developed enough for me to care.  The politically charged, free thinking sex, drugs rock and roll hippie attitude was described but not written completely enough to evoke emotion.  I get the feeling that this piece of writing is more meaningful to Coelho than to readers.  But maybe that is just me…

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

The Brazilian author PAULO COELHO was born in 1947 in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Before dedicating his life completely to literature, he worked as theatre director and actor, lyricist and journalist. In 1986, PAULO COELHO did the pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella, an experience later to be documented in his book The Pilgrimage. In the following year, COELHO published The Alchemist. Slow initial sales convinced his first publisher to drop the novel, but it went on to become one of the best selling Brazilian books of all time. Other titles include Brida (1990), The Valkyries (1992), By the river Piedra I sat Down and Wept (1994), the collection of his best columns published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo entitle Maktub (1994), the compilation of texts Phrases (1995), The Fifth Mountain (1996), Manual of a Warrior of Light (1997), Veronika decides to die (1998), The Devil and Miss Prym (2000), the compilation of traditional tales in Stories for parents, children and grandchildren (2001), Eleven Minutes (2003), The Zahir (2005), The Witch of Portobello (2006) and Winner Stands Alone (to be released in 2009). During the months of March, April, May and June 2006, Paulo Coelho traveled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella in 1986. He also held surprise book signings – announced one day in advance – in some cities along the way, to have a chance to meet his readers. In ninety days of pilgrimage the author traveled around the globe and took the famous Transiberrian train that took him to Vladivostok. During this experience Paulo Coelho launched his blog Walking the Path – The Pilgrimage in order to share with his readers his impressions. Since this first blog Paulo Coelho has expanded his presence in the internet with his daily blogs in WordPress, Myspace & Facebook. He is equally present in media sharing sites such as Youtube and Flickr, offering on a regular basis not only texts but also videos and pictures to his readers. From this intensive interest and use of the Internet sprang his bold new project: The Experimental Witch where he invites his readers to adapt to the screen his book The Witch of Portobello. Indeed Paulo Coelho is a firm believer of Internet as a new media and is the first Best-selling author to actively support online free distribution of his work.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

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My Review:

The Weight Of Ink tells the story of Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi in London in the 1600s right before the plague.  At the same time we learn about Helen Watt, a close to retiring British historian who is working on translations of some 17th century documents signed by scribe “Aleph”.  Even though these women lived-in different centuries, both were strong and determined to pursue their interests and fight to be heard, and choosing a life to satisfy the mind and sacrifice the heart.

Ester is a product of the Portuguese Inquisition and although displaced with little family, what feels like home for her is her job a a scribe for the rabbi, where her love of learning is nourished.  She turns down marriage offers as she prefers to work for the rabbi in order to continue her scholarly pursuits.  She has an open mind and longs to converse with philosophers and educated men, and although it is not acceptable for women to engage in these types of discussion, she creates unorthodox opportunities to be heard.

Helen has a love of Jewish history and as she and her American graduate student assistant Aaron Levy investigate the many pages of letters written to and from the London based rabbi to determine the identity of the scribe, it is a race against time as Helen’s physical health is failing, she is approaching retirement, and another team of historians are working on the same project.

We also learn about Aaron Levy, the Jewish assistant, who is interested in a relationship with a girl who is living in Israel on a Kibbutz and is pushing him away.  And then there are Ian and Brigette Easton, the couple who live in the 17th century house where the documents were found.  This is a complex story; a mystery and rich with history and well developed characters.

Author Rachel Kadish provides extensive depth: Jewish theology and philosophy, interfaith relationships and lost love, 17th century history, the Portuguese inquisition, the plague and so much more…no skimping on research here, but for me a bit too wordy, complex and long.  The Weight of Ink is powerful, intricate and the well deserved winner of the National Jewish Book Award.  Although this is not an easy book, if you love historical fiction and Jewish history and set aside a big chunk of time to conquer it, you will be rewarded with the beauty of memorable storytelling.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I often begin writing when something is bothering me. Years ago, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?
Woolf’s answer: She died without writing a word.
What, I wondered, would it take for a woman of that era, with that kind of capacious intelligence, not to die without writing a word?
For one thing, she’d have to be a genius at breaking rules.
My novel The Weight of Ink reaches back in time to ask the question: what does it take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners? I started writing with two characters in mind, both women who don’t mind their manners: a contemporary historian named Helen Watt and a seventeenth century Inquisition refugee named Ester Velasquez. It’s been a delight working on their story.
The Weight of Ink is my third novel, but I’ve also written two other novels and one novella, plus a few dozen essays and stories. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I put words to paper because it’s my way of metabolizing life. To paraphrase Henry James: I don’t really know what I think until I see what I say.
Thanks for your interest in books.

Refuge by Dina Nayeri

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My Review:  

In the late 1980s, Niloo, then 8 years old, left Iran with her mother and brother, thinking her dentist father would meet up with them soon after.   As it turned out, this daddy’s girl only saw her father 4 times in a span of twenty years following their exodus.  In Refuge, Author Dina Nayeri follows Niloo as a young married, Iranian woman on a journey to find herself and establish roots.  Concurrently, through her father, Bahman’s experiences, we gain an understanding of their relationship and his attachment to home.

In her early 30s, Niloo is living in Amsterdam with her French husband.  At the same time, in Iran, her father is at the courthouse filing for a divorce from his third wife. She has not seen him in many years and although she feels betrayed and disappointed by him, and has tried to erase him from her memory, Niloo thinks of her father often and recalls their few visits and the precious time they had together when she was a child.  Niloo and her husband are working on their young marriage and establish a list of rules; one of them being to have more fun.  Attending an Iranian poetry night fits the bill and she meets a traditional older Iranian man, along with a bunch of refugees who she befriends, allowing her to feel comfortably connected and bringing her thoughts back to home and her father.

Because Niloo moved away from her country at an early age and has trouble finding her place in society, she lived like a vagabond, always establishing a “perimeter”; an area in her dwelling where all her most important items are kept; a temporary home.   Growing up as a poor refuge, ties she had to her culture were suppressed and although she had the desire to settle down, she seemed to have difficulty laying new roots…constantly being embarrassed by her mother’s stories and not feeling attached to Iran, Amsterdam or anywhere else.  Niloo becomes involved in the world of refugees, spending time developing friendships that feel natural, and helping these people in need seems to feed her soul and give her some clarity and insight into who she is and how she can establish a life with solid footing.

Nayeri guides us through each family visit, Brahman’s decisions to finally leave his beloved Iran, the ups and downs of Niloo’s marriage, and her continual search for purpose, identity and home.  Refuge highlights this special father-daughter relationship with the backdrop of immigration and the feelings of loss, pressures, uncertainty and bravery of all who are forced to leave their homes and plant roots to begin again.

As someone who lives in the same place I was raised, with at least 3 generations of  family nearby for over 100 years, I never struggle with who I am, where I come from or where I belong.   I deeply admire those who have left their country and persevered to make a life for themselves somewhere else: they deserve immense respect and support.  Niloo’s and Bahman’s stories in Refuge remind me of those struggles, from finances to getting an education to being part of a community and ultimately creating a place to call home.  I highly recommend this wonderful novel.

 

As seen in Goodreads:

An Iranian girl escapes to America as a child, but her father stays behind. Over twenty years, as she transforms from confused immigrant to overachieving Westerner to sophisticated European transplant, daughter and father know each other only from their visits: four crucial visits over two decades, each in a different international city. The longer they are apart, the more their lives diverge, but also the more each comes to need the other’s wisdom and, ultimately, rescue.

Meanwhile, refugees of all nationalities are flowing into Europe under troubling conditions. Wanting to help, but also looking for a lost sense of home, our grown-up transplant finds herself quickly entranced by a world that is at once everything she has missed and nothing that she has ever known. Will her immersion in the lives of these new refugees allow her the grace to save her father?

Refuge charts the deeply moving lifetime relationship between a father and a daughter, seen through the prism of global immigration. Beautifully written, full of insight, charm, and humor, the novel subtly exposes the parts of ourselves that get left behind in the wake of diaspora and ultimately asks: Must home always be a physical place, or can we find it in another person?

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Dina Nayeri is a graduate of Princeton, Harvard Business School, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She spends her time in New York and Iowa City.