JULY 9, 2019
I READ Searching for Sylvie Lee during the final weeks of a busy spring semester teaching creative writing to undergraduates at a large research university. Many of my students were seniors looking ahead to life after commencement, and perhaps as a result, the topic of success (or the fear of never attaining it) often came up in their writing assignments. One student wrote a short story about a main character who drove for Uber and lived in his parents’ basement, unable to work through his crippling anxiety to attend a single job interview. Another student wrote a creative nonfiction essay in the form of a résumé, chronicling her efforts to find a rewarding career for herself that would also be acceptable to her immigrant parents.
In Jean Kwok’s engrossing third novel, the title character, Sylvie Lee, radiates a rare kind of success that many young people can only dream of. At 33, she has an impressive collection of degrees from Princeton, MIT, and Harvard. She lives in an expensive Brooklyn Heights apartment with her loving husband, Jim. And she travels around the world as a management consultant, armored in a wardrobe of high-end designer labels. Meanwhile, Sylvie’s 26-year old sister, Amy, lives in Queens with their parents (referred to throughout the novel as “Ma” and “Pa”), works the occasional temp job, and relies on Sylvie to make the monthly payments on her student loans.
It’s little wonder that Ma and Pa, first-generation immigrants from China, lean so heavily on Sylvie, that their own tenuous existence in the world somehow feels safer and more secure because of their eldest daughter’s presence in their lives. That sense of security, however, begins to fade when Sylvie flies to the Netherlands to be at her ailing grandmother’s bedside. Shortly after her grandmother dies, Sylvie disappears, leaving behind a trail of unanswered texts, calls, and emails.
At first, the Lees assume that Sylvie returned home to New York before she went missing. When Amy tries to confirm this, she discovers that her sister’s seemingly perfect, successful life was largely a facade. In the Brooklyn Heights apartment, she finds unpaid bills, a half-empty closet, and no trace of Jim, suggesting that her brother-in-law hasn’t lived there in some time. In a phone conversation with Sylvie’s employer, she learns that Sylvie left her job a month earlier under mysterious circumstances that the employer refuses to describe. On social media, Sylvie’s friends and acquaintances speak vaguely about a new job, but none of them have any details, as if they didn’t really know her at all. When the trail of clues runs cold in the United States, the Lees shift their attentions to the Netherlands, where Sylvie was last seen. Ma and Pa don’t speak English proficiently enough to make the trip, so the task of searching for Sylvie is left to Amy, who has never traveled abroad before, never done much of anything. According to Sylvie, her shy younger sister is timid like their mother, as if she “had eaten from frightened hare meat.”
Because Ma and Pa couldn’t afford to raise Sylvie when they first immigrated to the United States, they sent her away to live in a small Dutch town with her maternal grandmother and the Tan family (Ma’s cousin, Helena; her husband, Willem; and Helena and Willem’s son, Lukas). The visit to the Netherlands finally affords Amy the chance to see where her older sister spent the first nine years of her life and meet the people who helped raise her. However, it doesn’t take long to sense that something is amiss in the Tan household. Childhood photos of Lukas are prominently on display, but there are none of Sylvie, as if she’s been erased from their memory. Helena seethes tension and bitterness, finding every opportunity to put Sylvie down, however inappropriate given the circumstances. When she takes in Amy’s rumpled appearance, Helena observes, “‘You do not look much like your sister.’ Strangely, there’s approval in her voice.” Willem can’t stop looking at Amy, who thinks, “[T]here’s something about the way Willem stares at me, as if he’s not quite right in the head.” And from her second cousin, Lukas, she senses “the feeling of wildness around him; like he’s capable of anything.”
Kwok’s novel is structured non-chronologically, weaving chapters narrated from Sylvie’s point of view a month before her disappearance with chapters from Amy’s point of view while she searches for her sister in the present. Spliced in between are sections narrated by their mother, as well as transcripts of emails, phone calls, voicemails, and newspaper clippings from various time periods. The alternating structure allows readers to witness how the Lee sisters frequently saw the best in each other but thought the worst of themselves. As Amy notes: “Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo. If I didn’t love Sylvie so much, I’d hate her.” Sylvie, on the other hand, considers Amy to be the good and talented one in the family. She’s also convinced that the only reason Ma and Pa brought her back from the Netherlands was to serve as a babysitter for Amy, the child that their parents actually wanted. She tells Lukas: “Amy got the love and I got the success, but I do not have anything anymore.”
One might assume that resentments would exist between these sisters, but Kwok renders their relationship with genuine tenderness, gently revealing their human fallibility. She attributes part of their closeness to the fraught role that older siblings sometimes play in immigrant families when they have to serve as surrogate parents due to language and cultural barriers. In a section narrated by Ma, she recalls: “If there was a problem at Amy’s school, Sylvie had to take care of it. If there was an issue with Sylvie, she solved it herself. […] Pa and I were always working. The children came home to an empty apartment and all they had was each other.”
The beauty and tragedy of Searching for Sylvie Lee is in how much these sisters love each other because of — or in spite of — their upbringing. Another notable strength of the novel is how deeply it delves into the mindset of immigrants who never quite belong anywhere they live. Kwok, who resides in the Netherlands, paints a rich and complex portrait of a country well known for its laidback attitudes toward sex and drugs, perhaps resulting in the erroneous belief that its citizens are too free-thinking to be capable of racism. Yet everywhere Amy goes, she feels like an outsider in the place that her sister called home for nine years. On a walk through town with Estelle, an old childhood friend of Sylvie’s, she notices a commotion nearby.
I hear some sort of ching chong sound behind her and catch sight of two young guys and a pretty blond girl walking past us. One of the guys gives me a sly smile. It was him, I’m sure of it. Estelle whips her head around and gives him the finger.
Estelle later comments, “We have our problems here in the Netherlands too. There is stupidity everywhere and we are not used to having many foreigners here.” The complexities of an extended family of Chinese immigrants living all over the world are also evident when Amy meets Lukas’s real grandparents for the first time: “[T]hey enter the house, I stand and wait to greet them as is proper, but then none of us know which traditions to use.”
Kwok’s novel is at its best and most engaging when exploring the Lee sisters’ relationships with themselves and each other, the effects of immigration on entire generations of families, and the weight that the adult children of immigrants often feel, trying to live up to so many people’s expectations all at once. Less compelling are the plot twists involving the whereabouts of a cache of family jewels, mysterious sightings of Sylvie’s estranged husband, and a romantic triangle involving Sylvie, Lukas, and Filip, a cello instructor they both knew as a child. The budding romances, in particular, distract from the novel’s more satisfying story lines with an abundance of furtive looks, whispers, and sexual innuendos. At Sylvie’s first cello lesson, for example:
[Filip] closed his eyes and, instead of continuing his task, played a slow piece, filled with all the longing and unrequited love I felt. […]
When he stopped, his face revealed none of the emotion in his music. He gave me a tiny curt nod, and said, “Spread your legs.”
I gulped. “What?”
He came over to me, pulled me forward so I was sitting on the edge of my chair, then spread my thighs wide with a bold hand on the inside of each knee.
The story line involving Filip is particularly conspicuous because it’s difficult to imagine someone like Sylvie taking music lessons while her grandmother is dying. Moreover, it highlights Amy’s naïveté and her inability to piece together coincidences that an attentive reader is likely to see coming from a distance. For example, despite knowing that her sister had started taking cello lessons before she disappeared, it doesn’t seem remotely odd to Amy when a man who makes his living as a cellist hops on the back of her bicycle and develops an interest in her. Instead, she simply wonders: “Is it wrong to spend my time going to [his] concert? How can I like a guy while she’s still missing? What is wrong with me?”
By the time the Lees and Tans finally learn what happened to Sylvie, there are almost too many confessions and revelations to keep track of. Ma arguably drops the largest bombshell of them all, but given how many sections of the novel she narrates from her point of view, it seems too convenient that her character would reserve such information until the very end. While the thriller aspects of Searching for Sylvie Lee are somewhat uneven, readers interested in the family drama are sure to be drawn in by Kwok’s undeniable gift for creating memorable, intimate portraits of characters struggling to find their place in the world.