Review: Searching for Sylvie Lee

In her latest novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok continues to write on the familiar themes of immigration and racism as she explores the more general question of how well human beings can know each other. When the beautiful, talented, and successful Sylvie Lee disappears during a visit to the Netherlands, her family back in New York immediately begins to worry: Sylvie was supposed to fly home after attending her grandmother’s funeral, but she has failed to appear and she isn’t answering calls or emails. The first to raise to realize something may be truly wrong is Amy, the timid younger sister who has always looked up to Sylvie and relied on her for protection and guidance. Amy is more distraught than anyone about her sister’s disappearance and she decides she must overcome her fears and get on a plane to retrace her sister’s steps.

Once she arrives at her cousins’ home in the Netherlands, Amy realizes the thread she is following is more tangled and knotted than she could have possibly known. Sylvie was raised in the Netherlands for the first seven years of her life because Ma and Pa were new to America and unable to take care of a newborn. Cousin Helena, her husband Willem, their son Lukas, and Sylvie and Amy’s biological grandmother are the first family that Sylvie ever knew, so Amy expects them to be just as panicked as she is at her sister’s disappearance. Arriving at the Tan house in the wake of Grandma’s death and Sylvie’s disappearance, Amy is disconcerted to find that Helena turns cold and sullen at any mention of Sylvie and Lukas almost wild with distress.

As Amy unravels the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and her cousins’ strange reactions, she discovers far more than she bargained for about her sister, about her family, and about herself. Motivated by love for Sylvie and a determination to find out what happened to her, Amy comes out of her shell, pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone and finding a new confidence. She discovers that Sylvie’s life was not as perfect as it seemed from the outside, and in discovering her sister’s flaws, she is able to come to terms with some of her own. Kwok does a nice job of using the different voices of Amy, Sylvie, and Ma to reveal way each character changes when viewed from a different perspective, and it is through these varying perspectives that we get some of the richest moments in the novel. For instance, we are introduced to the story through Amy’s perspective and originally have only her perceptions of herself as the ugly duckling and Sylvie as the beautiful swan, but when we see Sylvie’s perspective, we learn that the swan’s feathers are not as pristine as they appear and the duckling is more charming and competent than she realizes.

Kwok packs a lot into a mere three-hundred pages, and while it can be fun to get lost in the mystery and romance that accompany Amy’s search for her sister, at times the reader may wish Kwok would slow down and spend a little more time on the pivotal moments––especially toward the end. Despite the fast pace, Kwok does manage to inject the story with keen observations on the racism immigrants face all over the world, touching insights into the love between sisters, and a shrewd understanding of the art of belonging. Ultimately, the action, romance, and mystery of this story boil down to a mediation on the complexities of relationships and the idea of truly understanding another person. A satisfying novel that deserves a spot on your summer reading list.

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