Published by William Morrow/HarperCollins on June 4, 2019
Genres/Lists: Fiction, Diverse
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Sylvie Lee was 9 when she returned home from the Netherlands to her parents and sister in New York City. She, like many children of Chinese immigrants, spent the first third of her life abroad while her parents got their footing in a new country. The dichotomy between her two lives – the before and after – turned Sylvie into somewhat of a loner. Smart, beautiful, and popular, she chose to focus on her career and kept most people at arm’s length. Everyone, that is, except for her sister, Amy. So when Sylvie heads back to the Netherlands to be by her dying Grandmother’s side and vanishes, it is Amy who instinctively knows that something is amiss. But as it turns out, Amy doesn’t know quite as much about the intimate details of her sister’s life as she thought.
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok (a #30Authors alum!) is told through alternative narrators – Sylvie, Amy, and their mother – the story unfolds in waves, with each wave crescendoing with new revelations. As Sylvie comes to terms with her two upbringings, Amy reels from the realization that she might not have known her sister as well as she thought she did. All the while, there are family secrets that have been hidden from both of them. Exposing the truth, however, has consequences and there are those who would rather take them to the grave than to have them face the light of day.
One of the great aspects of this book is how the setting takes on a life of its own. I spent a good bit of time Googling flowers and landmarks so that I could get a feel for what the characters were seeing. From the tulip gardens to the bicycle rides along the canal, I could practically feel the wind in my face and smell the flowers along the way. Kwok’s ability to tell the story in such a visual way is a true skill. I love when settings become a character in their own right and I thoroughly enjoyed the richness of her descriptions.
That said, I started to run into a few obstacles that threw off my reading flow a little over halfway into the book. There were, for example, a couple of plot turns that came about very abruptly, as if the path from point A to point B was irrelevant. These came alongside revelations about the characters’ personalities that were inconsistent with the people I had come to know in the first half. It was as if character traits were inserted into the novel to ensure the story moved in a certain direction, rather than allowing it to happen organically. The combination led to a jumpiness that felt forced. Still, I kept reading because I was hooked on the story line from the first page and wanted to see how it all ended.Secrets threaten to expose the truth in 'Searching for Sylvie Lee' Click To Tweet
Despite the awkward transitions and, if I’m being totally honest, awkward relationships that Sylvie made and maintained, Searching for Sylvie Lee makes for a good weekend read. It hooks the reader from the get-go, peters out a bit in the middle, but picks up steam again towards the end. Most of the characters have many layers to them, with more of them being revealed as time goes on, and the unraveling of family secrets provides for good reading.
Recommended for: Readers looking for a weekend read about family secrets and who are fans of settings-as-characters.