Summary: Searching for Sylvie Lee
This novel opens with the disorienting discovery that the firstborn of the Lee family is missing. Sylvie had gone to Amsterdam a month before to spend some time with the dying grandmother who raised her. But while her family in New York still think she’s in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls asking to talk to her. We meet the cast of characters pretty quickly — Sylvie, Amy, her sister, their parents, cousin, Lukas and his parents Helena and Wilhem.
When no one hears from Sylvie after several days, Amy — who’s never left the US in her entire life — flies to The Netherlands to find Sylvie. While she’s there, the story flits between the POVs of the three Lee women as readers learn what happened to Sylvie Lee.
I listened to this book on audio, and the narration definitely took this book up a notch for me. So, if you haven’t read this one yet, do the audiobook. With three different narrators who match all the accents in this novel perfectly, it’s such an immersive experience. Something else I enjoyed about this book is how much page time the author gives the city of Amsterdam. It felt like experiencing the city myself — from the massive biking culture to the waffles, and even a character who’s a KLM pilot — this book is essentially an ode to The Netherlands.
The mystery in this novel is gripping and kept me listening. This book is also packed with measured, realistic plot twists (in classic Jean Kwok style). If you’ve ever read a Jean Kwok novel, you know you can expect to find a good dose of Chinese superstitions and culture. In Searching for Sylvie Lee, there are also many nods to Dutch culture.
In Sylvie’s character, Kwok explores the effects of migration and childhood trauma. What does it do to a child when she feels unwanted throughout her life? How does losing a home and language that was an integral part of your identity affect you in the future? At what point does it become exhausting to maintain the appearance of perfection?
Searching for Sylvie Lee‘s biggest win for me, however, is the mastery of the unreliable narrator. No one can be trusted in this novel. It may in fact be anxiety-inducing for some readers, but if that’s your jam, give this book a shot. All three Lee women are complex and it’s hard to be sure of their motives and actions until the last page. This novel is also packed with family drama and dysfunction.
Often, this book’s strengths are also its weaknesses. The Lee women are not particularly likable (though that did not affect my enjoyment of the novel) and some readers may struggle with that. Although I listened to the audiobook, certain parts in the middle definitely dragged for me and I wished several times that we could just ditch the descriptions and backstories and focus on the plot instead. So, if you’re reading the actual book, this might be a bigger issue.
Overall: Searching for Sylvie Lee
Searching for Sylvie Lee is a thought-provoking meditation on race, Chinese culture, mental health, and life in Amsterdam. This contemporary, character-driven mystery-thriller will keep you turning the pages. If you’re a fan of books featuring a search for identity, forbidden love, and foreign countries, this might be the pick for you!
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Have you read Searching for Sylvie Lee or anything by Jean Kwok? What did you think? What are your favorite mystery-thrillers? I’d love to know!