Review: Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

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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Review: Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu (Saga Press 2020)

Reviewed by Allison McCausland

Slow burn stories rarely find their place in modern storytelling. It is even rarer when a slow burn has so much thought and detail in its world-building that it warrants dissection of the most minute details. The novel Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang achieves this feat by taking its time revealing Jingfang’s extensive research of physics, economics, and social systems.

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Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books 2020)

Review by Lane Berger

C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, follows a Chinese-American family without a name. Ma, Ba (father), Lucy, and Sam are immigrant, migrant, and the children thereof.

Divided into four a-chronological sections, the novel spans America’s Gold Rush Era. In Part One, Ba is dead, “And long gone, Ma.” But for Ba’s body and a stolen horse, Lucy and Sam are destitute when they set out to bury their father properly. While Lucy wills every step to take her away from her past, toward a white lace dress and civilization, Sam carries a disparate inheritance and disparate dreams. Begun as a journey to stay a spirit, the siblings take up the mantle of their parents’ search for self and home.

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Review: The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh

The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E.J. Koh (Tin House Books 2020)

Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen

Asian-American literature is finally having its moment in the United States. In the past four years, books such as Min Jin Lee’s, Pachinko and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We Are Briefly Beautiful have made their way to the New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year lists and have been nominated for a variety of prestigious awards.

As readers, Americans are hungry for new voices in Asian-American literature. While Amy Tan and Haruki Murakami have been the exception rather than the trend, there has been very little representation of voices in contemporary literature. However, authors like E.J. Koh are finally changing things.

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Review: Lying by Lauren Slater

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater (Penguin Books 2000)

Reviewed by Patricia Steckler

Lying, a title for a memoir, why? Don’t we read personal chronicles for true, reveal-all accounts of the authors who pen them? Are we to believe what Lauren Slater writes here? Or discount it? What’s the significance of Slater’s subtitle, A Metaphorical Memoir? Before I turned to the first page, my head swirled. Off-balance, dizzy with uncertainty, I wondered what kind of reading adventure awaited.

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Review: Deacon King Kong By James McBride

Deacon King Kong by James McBride (Riverhead Books 2020)

Reviewed by Allison McCausland

            During such turbulent times, it is important to have a sense of humor. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy has never been as eloquent as in James McBride’s latest novel, Deacon King Kong. McBride’s follow up to his National Book Award winning The Good Lord Bird draws on the same wit and humor as the author observes and records the human condition.

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