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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Bonding over Books with Sarah Jessica Parker

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This past summer I was fortunate enough to run into Sarah Jessica Parker, actress extraordinaire, accomplished producer, designer, and mom, currently partnering with the American Library Association to launch Book Club Central.  We spent quite a while discussing her first book club choice, No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, as we’ll as many other books.  Below is my article originally posted on booktrib.com.

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Authors are supportive to each other and many enjoy engaging with their readers. Book groups connect people to each other allowing them to discuss the stories authors write, current events and personal life. Books can bring people together from all over the world, highlighting issues, relationships and perspectives, binding us to each other. This appreciation of literature and the excitement over reading is what created an opportunity for me to spend some time bonding with Sarah Jessica Parker.
Continue reading

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.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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My Review:

Loved Behold the Dreamers, this debut novel by Imbolo Mbue!  Jende and Neni, from Cameroon, are striving to achieve the American Dream. They have an apartment in Harlem, Jende is working hard as a cab driver, and Neni is studying long hours, and they struggle to prosper while raising their 6 year old son.  They have high hopes and aspirations, and with good energy and a positive outlook, they work together toward their goals.

Clark and Cindy Edwards are American, rich and live a lavish lifestyle. Clark, a Lehman Brother’s executive, hires Jende to be his personal chauffeur. The men become close and Clark expects Jende’s loyalty. Cindy hires Neni to help around the house and she confides in her some personal secrets.

Despite the Edwards’ monetary success, their lives are filled with pain and despair, as they desperately try to maintain their wealth and prosperity during the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a financially devastating crisis in 2008.  The Cameroon couple find themselves with competing loyalties toward their respective employers as all their lives take a downward turn; the Edwards have financial and marital issues while Jende and Neni face immigration challenges. The two couples organically provide each other with help and support as Imbolo Mbue skillfully presents the situations and challenges of the poor immigrants vs the wealthy Americans for us to compare and contrast.

Behold the Dreamers give us valuable insight into the immigrant struggle, the perseverance and strength it takes to settle in another country, and the breaking point when home may be calling, wherever that may be.  I loved the characters, their depth and their relationships with each other.  A thoughtful, timely, and fast paced read, this is Oprah’s latest book club pick!

As stated in Goodreads:

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

 

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About the Author:

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City. BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is her first novel.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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As stated in Goodreads:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

My thoughts:

First I have to comment on Mohsin Hamid’s unbelievably beautiful, descriptive and unusual prose. He has a special way of painting a picture with words in a sing song way with paragraphs that are a single sentence, multiple phrases connected with commas.   I found myself reading a lot of the book out loud to comprehend more deeply and to experience the exceptional use of language auditorily.

This is a story of love, strength and adventure with what I see as a touch of fantasy. In Exit West, Nadia, a mysterious, strong, hard working, single woman living on her own and Saeed, “an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education”, living with his parents met and developed a relationship.  Violent times pushed them to seek safety and pursue a life of peace.  They learn of mysterious doors people can walk through to escape the unrest in their own country and enter into a new, unknown environment.  (For me, the doors are symbolic, they take the place of the physical journey as immigrants travel to a new country, so the focus can be on the emotion journey and the assimilation upon arrival.)  We follow Nadia and Saeed though the doors as their relationship changes while they explore new places.

Author Mohsin Hamid uses his words to describe the action in the story but has a descriptive way of getting at the deeper meaning.  In this excerpt we can visualize what happens but also can see the breaking down of a relationship.

“In the late afternoon, Saeed went to the top of the hill, and Nadia went to the top of the hill, and there they gazed out over the island, and out to sea, and he stood beside where she stood, and she stood beside where he stood, and the wind tugged and pushed at their hair, and they looked around at each other, but they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her, and they were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times.”

Saeed’s and Nadia’s struggle is representative of many who have left their home looking for a new place to settle.  Uprooting seems to test them in many ways, their ties to home, their faith, traditions and memories, their ability to assimilate and their commitment to each other.  Hamid brings to light a discussion of who belongs;  natives, migrants…are we all immigrants in a sense?

There is so much to discuss about the characters, the exquisite writing, the emotional and physical challenges of leaving one’s country and settling in a new place.  I loved this novel…such a great choice for book club!

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Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani author best known for his novels Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His fiction has been translated into over 30 languages, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, featured on bestseller lists, and adapted for the cinema. His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the Paris Review, and his essays in the Guardian, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. Born in 1971, he has lived about half his life, on and off, in Lahore. He also spent part of his early childhood in California, attended Princeton and Harvard, and worked for a decade as a management consultant in New York and London, mostly part-time.

Order your copy of Exit West on AMAZON today!

Nasty Women

According to Madeline Berg, Forbes staff: When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman”, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. But subsequently, many women have been embracing the term – if Clinton is nasty, well they want to be nasty, too.

Elizabeth Holliday, lead designer at e-commerce site Swanky Press says, “It has morphed from the insult that Trump intended to a badge of honor for accomplished women.”

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Here we have Nasty Women, A Collection of Essays and Accounts On What It Is To Be A Woman In The 21st Century published by 404 Ink, a new, alternative, independent publisher based in the UK. Issue 1 of their literary magazine was published in November 2016 and Nasty Women, their first book, funded on Kickstarter, will be available in March 2017.

Complex issues of being a women in today’s day and age are discussed in this compilation of essays by a diverse group of women from all over the country. Topics include Trump, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, body heath, mental illness and gun safety along with sexual orientation, harassment, rape and gender violence. Each essay is unique in voice and provides personal opinions specific to the author but is relatable in some way.

A few of my favorite essays in this collection are:

Independence Day by Katie Muriel, a Puerto Rican Feminist
The Difficulty in Being Good by Zeba Talkhani, a writer and production editor educated in Saudi Arabia, India and the UK
The Dark Girl’s Enlightenment by Joelle A. Owusu, a British writer and poet from Surrey

Nasty Women powerfully highlights a wide range of issues and is a must read for all nasty women out there! A great gift for any female in the 21st century!  Available March 8th.