Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok (William Morrow & Company 2019)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, author Jean Kwok draws on deep personal experience to find inspiration for her work. Searching for Sylvie Lee, begins with a heartfelt dedication to Kwok’s brother, who tragically passed away in an airplane crash after going missing for one week. Kwok channels her family’s pain, grief, and experience into the premise of her novel. After traveling from New York to the Netherlands to care for her dying grandmother, Sylvie Lee goes missing. Her younger sister, Amy, retraces Sylvie’s footsteps in hopes of finding the truth of what happened to her, discovering deep family secrets along the way. The novel examines significant themes like prejudice, immigration, secrets, and societal expectations, but the idea of family and familial love takes center stage.
Told from multiple points-of-view, Kwok gives her audience the real-time terror of Amy and her mother’s reactions to the news of Sylvie’s disappearance, while simultaneously telling us what happened to Sylvie from her own point-of-view. Kwok is a master of tension as she leads the reader through the highs and lows of Sylvie’s journey, slowly revealing step-by-step of what happened and the secrets involved, until the two timelines merge. At the very heart of the novel is the fraught relationship between the two sisters.
With a seven-year age gap, Sylvie and Amy Lee could not be more different from one another: “Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo. If I didn’t love Sylvie so much, I’d hate her” (4). Sylvie is the beautiful, smart, lovely, older sister, the person Amy admires and loves most in the world. Amy’s idealization of her perfect sister is relatable, but fallible. Amy is willing to give up this idea of Sylvie in exchange for the truth of what happened to her. However, Amy’s view is drastically different compared to how Sylvie sees both herself and Amy: “Where I was cold and false…Amy was genuine, a sweet little piece of licorice, always true to herself” (38). For Sylvie, Amy is the perfect sister, and everything Sylvie does is for her. When these perspectives are made parallel through the narrative arc, Kwok gives us a well-rounded sense of who Amy and Sylvie are, from their strengths to their faults.
The love Amy and Sylvie share becomes the driving force of the novel. The greatness of Amy’s love for Sylvie pushes her forward and allows her to overcome her fear of the world outside of her family’s small apartment: “That had always been Sylvie’s role, to go forth and have adventures. My job was to wait for her to return home safely. Now the country mouse has been forced into the great devouring world” (48). In contrast, Sylvie’s love of Amy makes up her strength and grounds her as things get difficult. When describing the happiest moment of her life, Sylvie talks about Amy: “I went home, trying so hard not to cry, and Amy jumped into my arms and everything was all right” (197). Kwok reminds us of the importance of unconditional love and the power it holds.
The confrontation of the truth can send even the strongest person running in the opposite direction, especially when long-buried secrets are unearthed. As Kwok reveals these truths, sharing stories of pain and loss create commonalities across a diverse audience. These stories remind us the love of those closest to us keep us grounded in the face of any insurmountable obstacles.
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