S earching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok opens with her main character, Amy, looking out the window watching her parents leave for work, hoping to see her Ma and Pa exchange some small gesture, any sign of emotion, that will help her understand their relationship. Seven months later at the close of the novel, it’s Christmastime and her parents sit together on a couch, holding hands. And during those months, Amy has uncovered a trail of family secrets, jealousies, love and loyalty.
The Lees are a Chinese immigrant family living in New York. Sylvie is the eldest daughter, beautiful and brilliant, successful in a high-paying, high-powered career and married to the son of a wealthy WASP family. She is everything younger sister Amy admires, adores, and resents. Amy still lives with her parents, stutters when she’s nervous, can’t decide on a profession, and faces a mountain of student debt from all the degrees she’s earned in trying to decide.
Then her cousin Lukas Tan phones from Amsterdam looking for Sylvie, who vanished at the end of her visit there. Alarmed, Amy flies to the Netherlands, bent on finding out what happened at their cousins’ home.
These cousins are not merely cousins. Sylvie spent the first nine years of her life with them in Amsterdam, sent there from New York. Her own parents were newly-arrived to America, too poor and overworked to care for her properly. She was raised all those years by her Grandma, who also lived with her mother’s Cousin Helena, Helena’s husband Willem Tan, and their son Lukas.
The Tans and the Lees should be close, but only when she meets Lukas and the Tans for the first time does Amy become aware there are tensions and secrets her parents never mentioned. Between the two families lie an ocean of unspoken hostilities and debts to family, some of it going back to the days before Amy and Sylvie’s parents left China.
The main narrative belongs to Amy, but deftly woven through the novel are chapters belonging to Sylvie and their Ma. Through their eyes we see Amy more lovingly than she’s able to see herself, and we learn of their decisions, self-doubt, and regrets. Jean Kwok is at her best when writing about the complexities of family and in Searching for Sylvie Lee she delivers an additional twist that turns this into a missing persons story. The result is a page-turner of a mystery dove-tailed with riveting domestic drama.
What I Learned About Writing from Reading This Book
When I first read Searching for Sylvie Lee, I admired how Jean Kwok was able to build an intriguing picture of the Lee family in the first chapter, so effective at making me care about these imperfect characters. Then she dropped in the mystery of Sylvie’s disappearance, the event that really gets the story rolling, and made me even more invested in the novel. Although I desperately needed 8 hours of sleep, I stayed up and read the entire novel in two nights.
What makes Sylvie Lee such a gripping read? Finding Sylvie depends as much on untangling relationships as it does finding clues. Most thrillers open with a dead body or some other mystery, and continue on the assumption that the premise alone is sufficient to drive the plot, to keep us following the detective who uncovers forensic evidence, digs up secrets, or follows the money. With her skillful use of multiple first-person narratives, carefully controlling what the reader needs to know at any particular point in the story, Jean Kwok makes sure we are as enmeshed in the Lee and Tan family dynamics, their histories and relationships, as we are in the present-day hunt for Sylvie.
Author Barbara Kyle once said to me, “All stories are about relationships and the most compelling relationship is that of family.” Here, relationships plus the mystery of the hunt equals a double hit of compelling. Jean Kwok lets family drive most of the story. Only near the end do we realize that actually, family has been the answer all along behind the mystery of Sylvie’s disappearance.
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