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
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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.