Searching for Sylvie Lee
Searching for Sylvie Lee, the beautiful, mesmerizing new novel by Jean Kwok, has been named a ‘Most Anticipated’ book by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and a host of other publications. I’ve been anticipating it since I finished her excellent Mambo in Chinatown in 2014. While this story doesn’t quite match the romantic, effervescent charm of that tale, it is a wonderful book and well worth reading.
Amy Lee is having one of those lives. One where nothing seems to work out, one where she can’t seem to find her place in the world. At this moment she has no real job, she’s dropped out of college with no degree and worse, she has a staggering amount of student debt she has no way to pay. She seems destined to watch life from the confines of her immigrant parents’ tiny apartment, knowing she is a burden to them.
Sylvie, her older sister, is the Lee family golden girl. She attended elite universities and graduated with honors. Now she has a high-powered career, luxury apartment, and a wealthy, handsome white husband. Amy thinks Sylvie is the epitome of everything wonderful.
Sylvie doesn’t see herself the same way Amy does; she has always considered herself an unwanted ugly duckling. When her parents first migrated to America, there were no jobs and no money, and in desperation, they had sent Sylvie to live with her grandmother and wealthy cousin Helena in Holland. She would stay there for nine years, a clever, homely little girl adored by her grandmother and Lukas, Helena’s son. Their affection almost made up for the fact that Helena and her husband William didn’t care for Sylvie at all.
Moving to America after nine years in Holland was a wrench for Sylvie. She had not felt she was rejoining her family, but was being rejected by the people who had raised her. She had to learn a new language (her third, since Grandma had also forced her to learn Chinese) and a new culture. She handled her heartache with a singular focus that not only allowed her to achieve her dreams but look out for Amy. The past has a way of pulling us back though, and for Sylvie, that comes in the form of a phone call advising her that Grandma is dying of cancer. Sylvie quickly packs up and heads to Holland. She arrives safely but the trip is fraught with familial tensions and arguments. Time has not softened the antagonism between Helena and Sylvie, and they begin sniping at each other almost immediately. Grandma has a secret she wants to share only with Sylvie, a secret that Helena suspects and which adds to the stress of the situation. When Sylvie suddenly vanishes, the Dutch branch of the family does nothing to look for her, confident she is simply escaping a volatile situation.
Amy is unaware there is a problem until cousin Lukas calls, searching for Sylvie, who isn’t answering her cell. He is certain Sylvie flew back to the U.S. but Amy can find no evidence that ever happened. Traumatized and in dire need of answers, Amy begins to comb through her sister’s life, looking for clues as to where she could be. All signs point to Sylvie never having left Holland. And although she has never flown on a plane before, never challenged anyone, and never questioned her elders, Amy’s love for Sylvie sees her flying to the Netherlands to confront Helena and Lukas and to ferociously trace her sister’s steps until she finds her.
Searching for Sylvie Lee is told in multiple points of view, giving us a panoramic look at the lives of the Lee family women. The heart of the tale is the question of identity: Who are we to ourselves, who are we to others, does biology determine destiny, where do we fit in? I especially loved how the author showed the impact that immigration can have on the question of our selfhood. Sylvie had been made to feel the outsider in two countries as well as in two families. In America, her parents were strangers who had missed most of her early, formative years. In Holland, her aunt and uncle made it clear they didn’t consider her part of their real family, and in both countries, racism plays a role in her interactions with people outside her family. Her search for a place to call her own is the story of her whole life. Amy’s quest for who she is vies constantly with who Sylvie is and what both her cultures expect of her. In America, the mythological expectation is for all Chinese immigrant children to be like Sylvie – beautiful, brilliant, and driven. Sweet Amy, who is loving and kind but not driven or brilliant, doesn’t meet the assumptions of her American teachers or her Chinese family.
The author does an absolutely lovely job of exploring the this theme with grace and subtlety, painting a poignant, sensitive portrait of personal exploration and growth that everyone can relate to. The story is also an exposé of the myth that we can ever truly know someone else. Amy’s hunt for the missing Sylvie reveals how little she actually understood the sister she idolized. We often, as the author tells us, hide “behind the curtain of language and culture: from each other, from ourselves.”. The theme of hiding and discovering, concealing and revealing are the cords that tie our surface plot of a search for a missing woman with the deeper story of the human experience of the complexity of relationships.
It is that surface mystery which is in some ways the weakest point of the story. The big family secret which has had such an impact on Sylvie’s life is easily guessed at a quarter of the way through the book. That doesn’t make the search for where she is any less interesting but I did think it detracted a certain sense of urgency from the tale. For Amy, the revelation at the end of the story is a pivotal moment. For me, it was simply confirmation of something I had known for most of the novel.
Fortunately, Searching for Sylvie Lee is about a lot more than that moment. It’s a masterful probing of the role of culture and family in the formation of self; a profound look at immigration the world over, an exquisite, haunting tale about sisterhood; a lovely, lyrical coming of age story and an absolute must read for those who enjoy the genre of women’s fiction.