Contemporary Fiction: Jean Kwok

At this point I’m pretty sure Jean Kwok is one of my new favorite authors. I recently read her newest book, Searching for Sylvie Lee, and my, was it a page-turner.

When the Lee family first immigrates to New York City from China, they are so poor that they have to send their elder daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with Mrs. Lee’s cousin and her family. They believe it will only be for a year or so, but Sylvie doesn’t join her birth family in New York until she’s nine years old and can help care for her younger sister Amy.

The story is told in first person from three alternating points of view: Ma, the mother of Sylvie and Amy; Sylvie as an adult whose marriage is crumbling; and Amy as an adult who is still trying to find her way in the world. The three viewpoints make this novel a rich experience, with themes of belonging and yearning for love and connection.

Sylvie has gone back to the Netherlands to be with her grandmother, who is dying. When Sylvie stops answering her phone, Amy and Ma become worried and Amy follows her sister to Europe. Amy finally gets to know the family she has there while she tries to figure out what happened to her sister. Nobody seems to know.

The story manages to be tender and insightful as well as suspenseful. Family secrets abound, and the solution to Sylvie’s disappearance is revealed in exactly the right way to keep us readers wanting to find out more. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s an excellent distraction, and as 2020 winds to a close, I think we all need a little of that right now.

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