“Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

What made me pick up this book from the many displayed in the ‘New’ section of my local library was the quote by Paula Hawkins on the cover, calling it a “twisting tale of love, loss, and dark family secrets.” I loved Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, which was also a huge bestseller, and an endorsement from her seemed very promising. If it was even one-tenth as good as The Girl on the Train, that would be good enough for me.

Having finished it, I can say that it was — just about. I was at least able to finish it without forcing myself to — it did manage to sustain my interest right up to the end, which is no mean feat, given the number of books I started recently that I was forced to abandon after a few chapters because they just didn’t grip me. As the title of the book suggests — Searching for Sylvie Lee — there is a mystery at the heart of it, which makes you want to go on reading until it is solved. Over and above that, however, I also found the book well written, with a cast of characters in a setting that was unusual, to say the least. The majority of the book is set in the Netherlands, and most of the main characters are Chinese, either immigrants or, in the case of the younger generation, either Chinese Americans or Chinese Dutch. Here in the US, we are surrounded by Chinese Americans, so there is not much novelty, but in the Netherlands, people of Chinese origin are still a rarity, and it was very interesting to read about their experiences.

The basic plot of the book is that a young Chinese American woman, Sylvie — Ivy-league educated, smart, and successful — goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother — and then just disappears. She was supposed to have travelled back to the US, but never shows up. Her family is panic-stricken, and her younger sister, Amy, travels to the Netherlands to try and find her. The reason their grandmother was there to begin with was that she had been living permanently with her well-to-do niece, Helena, helping her with raising her son, Lukas. In fact, Sylvie was sent to stay with them for most of her childhood, as her immigrant parents were struggling to make ends meet in the US. Thus, Sylvie and Lukas grew up together, and she had a strong maternal bond with her grandmother, which she was never able to cultivate with her own mother even after she was brought back to the US.

The story is alternately told from the points of view of Amy, her mother (who, in turns out, has a critical role to play in how the plot unfolds), and Sylvie herself. Also, it is told in staggered timelines, with Sylvie’s chapters set about a month before Amy’s, so we are seeing their experiences in parallel, but without really knowing what happens to Sylvie until closer to the end of the book. It was an interesting plot device, one that I haven’t come across very often, and it was effective in sustaining the momentum of the story while progressively inching towards the mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

While I did find the end a little anticlimactic — it started out seeming like a murder mystery but wasn’t really — I enjoyed the overall storyline, the writing, and especially the details about life in the Netherlands as well as the Chinese Dutch experience of it. Those were very authentic and seemed to come from the author’s own experience of being of Chinese descent and currently living in the Netherlands. Searching for Sylvie Lee is by no means a work of literature, but it was overall, a good read.

Searching for Sylvie Lee
Author: Jean Kwok                               
Publisher: William Morrow               
Publication Date: June 2019       

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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