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 By Jean Kwok

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

 

Secrets and Suspense Abound In Finding Mrs. Ford by Deborah Goodrich Royce

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My Review:

Twists and turns kept me glued to the pages of Finding Mrs. Ford, this fun and mysterious debut from Deborah Goodrich Royce, the actress who played Silver Kane, sister to Erica Kane in All My Children.

Summertime, late 1970s, Detroit…Susan and Annie meet at their mundane jobs at a clothing store and become fast friends.   The girls are saving up for college and Annie, the spitfire, decides they both will quit and go to work at a disco to make more money, so Susan goes along with it.  Dangerous and powerful men run the disco and Annie gets caught up with one of the bosses and becomes involved in drugs, while Susan continually tries to keep away from trouble and controversy.  Feeling disappointed in how the girls’ friendship has dissipated, Susan becomes distracted by her thoughts about a handsome and mysterious Chaldean man she meets at the disco.  And then a tragic accident changes everything.

Now it is present day in Watch Hill Rhode Island, and Susan is the widow of  wealthy, respectable Jack, and she and her stepson, Jack Jr are partners in the family business. Then Susan’s past begins to haunt her when the FBI knocks on her door….

Secrets and suspense abound in Finding Mrs. Ford, a true page turner!  Lies from the past are uncovered in this thrilling and entertaining debut – incredibly well written and so visual at times it will catch your breath; this book would make a wonderful movie!

 

Q & A With Author Deborah Goodrich Royce

Q:  Finding Mrs Ford has many wonderful characters who seem to experiment with different identities.  How did you come up with this idea of personal reinvention and what was the writing process for character development?

A:  That is an excellent question and you have hit the nail on the head with it! One of the most important themes of this book is, in fact, identity. Who are we really and are we the same person throughout the entirety of our lives? Can we change? Can we reinvent ourselves to adapt to different social situations. One of the earliest titles of the books had to do with the concept of “slumming”—going into social situations that are perceived to be beneath us, and “social climbing”—entering social situations that are seemingly above us. Mrs. Ford is a woman who has traveled a great distance geographically—yes—but even more so in other ways.

Q:  I enjoyed Susan’s attraction to Sammy and their budding romance.  What is the significance of Sammy’s Chaldean ethnicity?

I have always been intrigued by the Chalean people and their place in both the Middle East and in Detroit. I met several Chaldeans when I was around the age of Susan and Annie in 1979. At that point, like Susan, I was not familiar with them. Simultaneously, I was taking a course on Middle Eastern history in college. When I asked my professor about the Chaldeans, she was surprised that I had heard of them. I had to explain to her that they were quite present in Detroit. So, that definitely played into how Sammy came to be a Chaldean.

On top of that, at the moment I began writing the book, ISIS was all over the news. They were taking over Mosul and gruesomely killing Chaldeans, Yazidis, and many other locals. The dovetailing of my natural interest in this group of people with their emergence on the world scene in such a horrible way made for an interesting back story for the character of Sammy Fakhouri.

Q:  Did you ever have a friend like Annie who pushed you out of your comfort zone to try something new – and how did it work out?

A:  Another great question. The short answer is yes. But I would modify it to say that Annie is based on several women I have known over the years. I have a natural reserve, so I am fascinated by people, like Annie, who suck so much air out of the room. I was also much more impressionable when I was young. I had the tendency to second guess my own instincts and to defer to what others wanted. If you have ever read the book, The Lovely Bones, in which a teenage girl completely ignores her gut feeling and ends up following a man into a fatal setting, well, that book stunned me to my core. I could have been that girl! And I suspect that many girls are like that. I was a good girl (like so many young women)—a pleaser—who often did not listen to the small internal voice that knew what to do. And NOT do. Fortunately for me, the consequences were never as extreme as they were for Susan or for the character in The Lovely Bones.

Q:  Finding Mrs Ford takes place in 1970s Detroit and 2014 Rhode Island. Did you write the book in the order it is presented to the reader or did you write chronologically?

A:  I wrote the book in the order that it is read, which goes back and forth between the two time periods. However, I outlined it chronologically before I wrote it. And then I went back and ripped it apart and outlined it again—just to make sure that there were no mistakes!

Q:  Did you know how the book was going to end when you began?

A:  Before I started writing, I knew what I thought would be the ending, but now turns out to be the middle of the book. I see the structure of Finding Mrs. Ford as being similar to a roller coaster ride. There is that jolt at the beginning, when the car is let loose on the tracks. Then there is the steady chugging upwards to get to the very top. And then the car careens down the other side. That exact moment was originally meant to be the end of the book. But, I ended up giving the rider one more round of it. As I see it now, that first version would have been too short a ride on the roller coaster!

Q:  Often when I was reading, (ex. the scene that took place in the back room of the disco, the scene when the girls were frantically driving away)  I felt like I was watching on the big screen!  How has your career influence this story?

A: I am completely in thrall to and heavily influenced by film. In fact, In fact, I had to do some revisions to make the book LESS cinematic. I had to be careful to not let the reader peek around any corners that the heroine could not peek around. I used a technique of Hitchcock a couple times—specifically in those back room scenes—in which you, the reader, are fully aware that something bad might be about to happen, but something ELSE pulls your attention momentarily. It heightens the jolt when the big thing hits you. For example, when Susan first goes into the store room, the lights are oddly off, which is unsettling. But then she bumps her toe on something. Her—and your—attention is pulled to that object, which turns out to only be a box of ketchup. You start to breathe again, and it is just then that the big thing happens.

Q:  Can you tell us about your theater restoration projects?

A:  My husband, Chuck, and I restored the Avon Theatre—a gorgeous 1939 cinema in Stamford, Connecticut. We run it as a not-for-profit independent cinema where we show first run films and curate lots of series. We have a French film series in conjunction with the Alliance Française of Greenwich, an Indian Film series, and both a cult classics and a documentary series. The one I am most proud of is our newest series called The Black Lens. In it, we take a look at the African American story as seen through the prism of film. What does it mean to be of African descent in our country and how is that story told in movies? We show documentaries and feature films and our moderator, Harriette Cole, interviews the filmmakers. In October we are going to show the new documentary on Toni Morrison.

Additionally, Chuck is hard at work raising the final money to restore the United Theatre in Westerly, Rhode Island (while I am off on my book tour!). The United will be a multi-purpose cultural center that features live theatre, music, art and cinema. What I can tell you about the Avon and the soon-to-be-restored United, is that a theatre is an economic engine for a Main Street setting. People stroll at night, they patronize the restaurants, they engage socially and culturally with others. It is pretty wonderful.

Q:  What have you read lately that you recommend?

A:  I loved The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and had a more complicated relationship with The Snakes by Sadie Jones.

Q:  I know you lived in Paris for a time. Will you ever have France as a setting in a future book? What are you working on now?

A:  Ooohh…France would be an excellent setting for one of my stories. But Ruby Falls, the book I am working on now, starts in a pitch black cave near Chattanooga, Tennessee, quickly jumps to the Catacombs in Rome, and then plays out for the rest of the book in the Hollywood Hills. That book is more gothic. Think The Woman in White meets Rebecca.

 

If you enjoyed The Last Mrs. Parrish and The Last Time I Saw You by Liv Constantine and Pretty Revenge by Emily Liebert, you will enjoy the face paced, gripping, thrilling and suspenseful Finding Mrs. Ford.

The Wife Between Us and An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen are also addictive psychological thrillers to throw in your beach bag!

Goodread Summary

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About the Author:

Deborah Goodrich Royce graduated Summa Cum Laude from Lake Erie College in 1980 with a BA in modern foreign languages (French and Italian) and a minor in dance. In 2008, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the same institution.

Deborah was an actress in film and television for ten years. Her big break came with the leading role of Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane, on the long running ABC soap opera, All My Children. Deborah went on to star in feature films such as Remote Control, April Fool’s Day, and Just One of the Guys, television movies such as Return to Peyton Place, The Deliberate Stranger with Mark Harmon, and Liberace, and television series such as St. Elsewhere, Beverly Hills 90210, and 21 Jump Street.

After the birth of her daughters, Deborah moved to Paris in 1992 and worked as a reader for Le Studio Canal Plus. On her return to the US, she transitioned to Miramax Films as their story editor. At Miramax, she worked on the development of such films as Emma, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Walking and Talking by Nicole Holofcener, and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time. With writing partner, Mitch Giannunzio, she won a grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council in 2002 to develop and workshop their original screenplay, Susan Taft Has Run Amok.

In 2004, Deborah and her husband, Chuck Royce (small cap investment pioneer), restored and reopened the Avon Theatre Film Center, a 1939 landmark in Stamford, CT. The not-for-profit Avon is dedicated to independent, classic, foreign, and documentary films, and hosts an ongoing series of visiting film luminaries. Directors and writers such as Robert Altman, Peter Bogdonavich and Nora Ephron, and actors such as Jane Fonda, Chloe Sevigny, Emma Roberts, and Richard Gere, have all come to the Avon to show their films and talk about their work. The late Gene Wilder, who frequently appeared at the Avon, was an early and avid encourager of Deborah’s writing.

Deborah serves on multiple boards, including the national council of the American Film Institute, the executive board of the Greenwich International Film Festival, and the governing boards of the New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, and the PRASAD Project.

Deborah and Chuck have restored several hotels (Ocean House—one of only 13 triple Forbes five-star properties in the world—the Weekapaug Inn, and the Deer Mountain Inn), a bookstore (The Savoy in Westerly, RI), and have completed numerous Main Street revitalization projects in Tannersville, New York and Westerly, Rhode Island. They are currently about to break ground on the renovation of the United Theatre arts complex in Westerly.
She and her husband have a tribe of children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and animals.

Finding Mrs. Ford is her first novel.

Identity, Dance and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Feeling comfortable with who you are can be complicated…a difficult journey for many who feel different from others.  Often this is just a perception, as we all come from various sordid places and are birthed from unique people with their own individual backgrounds.  

I am lucky enough to be part of a group that feels like home, a safe place to tap into who I am and also feel connected to others. For 15 years I have been taking the same dance class and, although there has been some ebb and flow of participants through the years, there is always a solid group of regulars who together create a warm atmosphere of acceptance for all who take part. We come together because of dance, and the positive, nurturing environment our teacher, Luisa, creates and sets the example for. In the safety of the four walls where we convene, we express ourselves freely as individuals, and collectively when we catch eyes in the mirror, simultaneously experiencing heightened endorphins and joy from the movement and the music.  From married, single, children, no children, business owners, workers, retired… to under 40, over 80, black, white, asian, immigrant, townie…everyone has their own unique identity that is accepted and celebrated in the shared space filled with each person’s confidence, energy and light.

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Our dance family has planned outings on occasion, providing us with opportunities to talk, get to know each other and develop connections and friendships that increase the fulfillment of time spent together.  Recently this unique community of ours started a book club, and this month we chose to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. We selected it because we thought it was about two girls who were brought together through dance. We thought we were going to love it.

It started out about a dance class uniting two young girls, but quickly veered away and was really about much more.

Book Club Impressions

In Swing Time, an unnamed narrator told her story and we, as readers were the observers, charged with the task of understanding and finding meaning in her life.  She was a light skinned black girl who came from a mixed race family. She was drawn to Tracy, another racially mixed girl from her dance class and they became fast friends. Their young friendship was strong, the narrator became Tracy’s loyal sidekick, and then the friendship faded as their lives went in different directions. The narrator’s lack of proficiency in dance led her to becoming an assistant to a pop star, while Tracy pursued a dance career but ended up unemployed with three children each from a different father.  Mixed race, broken homes, untapped talents and unfulfilled dreams, drug overdoses, neglected friendships and bad relationships, betrayals, lack of support systems, poor decisions and misdirection sum up the challenges the characters faced, but the underlying theme was everyone’s search for identity, self fulfillment and acceptance. 

Only half our group was able to finish the book, as we all mostly agreed it felt like it was a bit of slog, an emotionless slice of life, providing nothing of great interest to tap into our curiosity.  An anonymous narrator with lack of ambition didn’t show enough of herself to create connection with us. We never even knew her name.  I believe the author intended to keep all the characters at arms length in order to allow readers to draw conclusions about identity, race and wealth from their actions, but for our group this approach fell flat.

This was an ironic book choice for a diverse group that collectively has the opportunity to feel supported, connected and in touch with their individual identity in a warm and accepting environment.  So it is not surprising that we were not overjoyed with a story about unresolved personal journeys, struggles and unfulfilled dreams. In the book, the time periods jumped around quite a bit and despite the easy to read prose, Swing Time was a challenge to follow and not as engaging as we had hoped.  It definitely was fodder for rich discussion though, and while the characters in the book struggled, we bonded.   Read this one at your own risk.

Goodreads Summary 

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About the Author:

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

There There by Tommy Orange

 

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My Review:

So much sorrow as the characters in There There seek connection and struggle with identity…an honest and important debut!

Author Tommy Orange gives us a window into Native American Indian suffering and challenges with skill.  We follow more than a dozen characters, hearing their stories as they prepare to attend a major Pow Wow, a coming together of Natives from all over.  As we know, their land was taken away from them, but most have never lived the traditional Indian life on a reservation.  They are interested in their own culture and history yet they know so very little about where they truly came from, the people, the places, and the rituals and traditions.  Not knowing their past contributes to unsettled feelings, and a sense of belonging is challenging and often laced with despair.

Tony Loneman was born to an alcoholic and has some mental deficits.  He deals drugs.  He plans to go to the Pow Wow to steal money.

Dene Oxendene smokes weed.  He takes over his uncle’s movie making project about Indians and their stories.  He plans to go to the Pow Wow to interview Natives.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield lived on Alcatraz in protest when she was a child, with her mom, who died of cancer and her sister.  She plans to go to the Pow Wow to see her grandson dance.

Edwin Black searches online and finds his long lost father.  He plans to meet him at the Pow Wow.

Everyone is searching for their history, a means to an end and connection while battling despair, addiction, weight issues and social challenges.  I found this book, a collection of integrated personal stories, compelling and tragic. Not knowing who you are can be devastating and hearing the words of a character who is half Native and half white, the struggle is evident as Orange writes, “You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. ”

With clarity and honesty, There There is a story of the urban Native Americans, an inherently beautiful people with a painful past and a deep sense of spirituality.  I highly recommend this book.

Goodreads Summary

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Photo: © Elena Seibert

About the Author:

Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.  He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow.  He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.  He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

 

New People by Danzy Senna

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My Review:

I really enjoyed New People and was intrigued by who the description, “new people”, referred to.  Maria and Khalil are a seemingly happy, engaged couple living in Brooklyn, both light skinned, mixed race.  Khalil, a technology consultant, comes from a solid, intact family unit and is close with his parents and sister who is darker skinned than he is.  Maria has no relatives; she was adopted by a black woman who was hoping to raise a “mini me” and has since passed away.  She is spending her time writing her dissertation on Jamestown and busy learning about the mass suicides, how this could happen, and how those people kept going as long as they did. Maria’s previous boyfriend was white and although something about him made her despise him as a person, they had unrivaled physical chemistry.  She now is planning her wedding to Khalil, but is distracted by her attraction to a black poet who she keeps running into.

Maria has done something in her past that is dishonest and cruel to Khalil.  He is unaware and loves her very much.  Now that she is obsessed with another man she makes questionable decisions which lead her into some dicey circumstances but the details are not revealed to Khalil so the reality of who she is and what she does in her life remain hidden.  She has been and continues to be deceitful, yet for me, she is still likable and worthy of compassion.

I believe Maria’s studying of Jamestown, the people who were looking for their true selves and a place to belong in this world, and the music that enriched, was a representation of her personal quest for belonging.  With a college friend she doesn’t even remember, she has a brush with Scientology, as she allowed this former classmate to perform some tests on her, and then she feels a pull, back to the ideal life of Khalil and his family.  She looks white but feels black so her identity is unclear as she seems to be searching for people she can relate to, often feeling disconnected.  Maria’s bad judgement and and questionable decisions lead to some unusual situations that were humorous and uncomfortable.  New People, referring to mixed race people, this story of identity, relationships and communication was enjoyable, short and easy to read and I highly recommend it.

 

As Seen on Goodreads:

From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.

Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

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About the Author:

Danzy Senna is an American novelist, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts in 1970. Her parents, Carl Senna, an Afro-Mexican poet and author, and Fanny Howe, who is Irish-American writer, were also civil rights activists.

She attended Stanford University and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. There, she received several creative writing awards.

Her debut novel, Caucasia (later republished as From Caucasia With Love), was well received and won several awards including the Book-Of-The-Month Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the Alex Award from the American Library Association.

Her second novel, Symptomatic, was also well received. Both books feature a biracial protagonist and offer a unique view on life from their perspective.

Senna has also contributed to anthologies such as Gumbo.

In 2002, Senna received the Whiting Writers Award and in 2004 was named a Fellow for the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Danzy Senna is married to fellow writer Percival Everett and they have a son, Henry together. Their residences have included Los Angeles and New York City.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

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As seen on Goodreads:

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. She goes out dancing, she drinks a bit, she makes ends meet by doing digital art on commission. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met.

As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And after a decade’s worth of lying, can Lucky break free of her own circumstances and build a new life? Is she willing to walk away from all that she values about her parents and community to live in a new truth? As Lucky—an outsider no matter what choices she makes—is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a vivid exploration of a life lived at a complex intersection of race, sexuality, and nationality. The result is a profoundly American debut novel shot through with humor and loss, a story of love, family, and the truths that define us all.

 

My Comments:

A lovely debut, Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings to light the layers of struggles that shape our decisions on how we choose to live our lives.  Lucky and her husband Kris are both gay, in a marriage of convenience to keep Kris in the country and for Lucky to mend the relationship with her disapproving family and save face in the eyes of the Sri Lanken community.  Lucky returns home to care for her ill grandmother and is reunited with Nisha, her old friend whom she had a romantic relationship with when they were younger.  Nisha is preparing for her arranged marriage to a man, but in the weeks leading up to her wedding the suppressed love and desire of these former lovers are unleashed forcing both Nisha and Lucky to reevaluate their choices and how they want to live their lives.  Is it better to follow your heart and be shunned from your family and community or should you live a lie to be accepted?  Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings us on a journey of struggles and pressures, as Nisha and Lucky make their decisions on how to live and where to find acceptance.

Last week, on the 20th anniversary of Ellen Degeneres coming out at  gay on national tv to 42 million viewers, I reflected on how far we have come in the United States when it comes to acceptance and treating all people equally.   Yes, we have progressed in 20 years, but there are still many individuals and groups that preclude some from being considered equal and treated fairly.  It is part of the human struggle to protect and honor the past while we grow and accept change and celebrate difference moving forward.  Little by little we are finding the balance, one family and one community at a time, as brave individuals choose to live authentically and gain support from their inner circle.  I enjoyed this well written novel as it touched on the personal struggles of  each character with the added bonus of Sri Lankan traditions and customs.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies will be available June 13th.

Preorder here on AMAZON.

 

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About the author:

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. Her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, won the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was published by Split Lip Press. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Marriage of a Thousand Lies is her first novel, and will be released by Soho Press in June 2017.