STARRED REVIEW
June 04, 2019

Searching for Sylvie Lee

By Jean Kwok
Review by

When Jean Kwok’s latest novel opens, Sylvie has returned to the Netherlands to tend her dying grandmother, then vanishes. No wonder: If you were Sylvie, you’d probably want to get as far away from the Dutch branch of your family as possible.

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As a child, Sylvie Lee had a lazy eye, a crooked tooth and a peculiar birthmark that she’s retained into adulthood. Now grown, she’s brilliant and successful. She is cold and even punitive toward people she doesn’t know, but she is capable of passionate love for the few who are close to her. She spent the first nine years of her life in the Netherlands with her grandmother; her mother’s rich cousin, Helena Tan; Helena’s husband, Willem; and their son, Lukas. After that, Sylvie was shipped back to the cramped Queens, New York, apartment of her Ma, Pa and adoring younger sister, Amy.

When Jean Kwok’s latest novel opens, Sylvie has returned to the Netherlands to tend her dying grandmother’s funeral, then vanishes. No wonder: If you were Sylvie, you’d probably want to get as far away from the Dutch branch of your family as possible. Helena hates her, and Willem is handsy. Friends Estelle and Filip, whom Sylvie meets when she returns to the Netherlands, are duplicitous. Sylvie falls in love with Lukas, but it’s an impossible union, not only because they’re second cousins but also because she’s already married to an unfaithful man and Estelle is Lukas’ girlfriend. After Sylvie’s disappearance, Amy burns up her savings to fly to the Netherlands to find her.

On top of the turmoil surrounding Sylvie’s disappearance, Kwok throws in the racism experienced by the Lees in America, and the less expected but often cruder racism the Tans experience in the enlightened Netherlands. Throughout the novel, women struggle to cope with the misogyny found in Chinese, American and Dutch societies, language barriers, class differences, amusing customs (such as the Dutch traditions of giving three kisses in greeting and riding bicycles absolutely everywhere) and irresistible cuisine. Kwok is unafraid to fully translate her characters’ flowery Chinese and contractionless Dutch, which gives the book an unexpected Pearl S. Buck-style flavor. There’s even a cache of valuable jewels passed from mother to daughter that everyone thinks everyone else wants to get their hands on.

The result is a book that is busy, compelling and not a little wild. When you think of it, it is very much like Sylvie herself.

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Searching for Sylvie Lee

Searching for Sylvie Lee

By Jean Kwok
William Morrow
ISBN 9780062834300

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