email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Falling KnifeA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesADHD NationAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Forever MaybeAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAsymmetryBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBring Them HomeBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCountryCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDead Little Mean GirlDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDon't Wake UpDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily and Other CatastrophesFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlFlat Lake in WinterForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGood and GoneGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am I Am I AmI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKeeping LucyKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Knife CreekLeaping BeautyLie to MeLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLosers BracketLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade for LoveMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMarlenaMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNot a Crime to Be PoorNothingNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOdd Child OutOh My GothOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersOutside Looking InPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaPutneyQueenieRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalReleaseRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSearching for Sylvie LeeSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSinlessSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySleepyheadSnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill in LoveStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSycamoreSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe ArrangementThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Bookshop on the ShoreThe Boy at the KeyholeThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe ChemistThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dutch HouseThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe End of Our StoryThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe Family GeneThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Fortunate OnesThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe Perfect GirlThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe Quiet RoomThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rest of the StoryThe Royal Baths MurderThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe SharkThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Smiling ManThe Song of the Jade LilyThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Stillwater GirlsThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Summer ChildrenThe Survival ListThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe VegetarianThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whiz Mob and the Grenadine KidThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch ElmThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThings You Didnt SeeThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo CloseToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTrust ExerciseTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVacuum in the DarkVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWatching YouWays to Die in GlasgowWe Are OkayWhat the Dog SawWhen My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen She ReturnedWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Know Me WellYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
Jean Kwok has written three novels of Chinese-American life, starting with her debut from 2010, Girl in Translation. Kwok's Searching for Sylvie Lee is a cultural phenomenon. It was chosen for Jenna Bush Hager's Today Show Book Club this year, and this already made it a bestseller. The club began in March of this year according to EW.com and has so had just female authors for its choices. Indeed, two of the choices so far have had explicitly cross cultural themes: Etaf Rum's A Woman is No Man, and Kwok's novel. #ReadwithJenna provides a helpful list of 14 questions to help readers think about Searching for Sylvie Lee, and these do highlight important aspects of the book. It does have some interesting elements, especially related to immigrants experience. Yet as I read through the book, I was at first engaged by the story and the different voices, then puzzled about its elements and finally appalled at the purple prose and the depiction of Chinese culture.
The plot involves the mystery of the title: Sylvie Lee is a Chinese-American who has all the marks of success. Born to immigrant parents in Queens, she lived in Holland with her aunt for the first 9 years of her life. She was a brilliant student and became an undergraduate at Princeton University, and went on to Harvard business school. She got a high paying job, married, and lived with her husband in the apartment donated to him by his parents, in the fancy Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. She was extremely busy and did well in her high paying job. Then she disappeared.
There are three narrators, Sylvie, Amy, and their mother, Ma. Each is performed by a different speaker in the unabridged audiobook. Amy starts off, and on the second page she casually mentions a saying of Willa Cather, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” This is of course one of the central ideas of the story, and we discover that the three narrators have big secrets. Amy sets out the basics of the past and her efforts to find Sylvie. She explains how their parents work in low paying jobs, at a dry cleaners and at a fish market. They work hard and have traditional attitudes. The had an arranged marriage and her father would sometimes get drunk in his time off. Sylvie had been in the Netherlands when she disappeared, and Ma and Pa cannot take time off from work, so Amy decides to go there to investigate what happened. While Sylvie had been cosmopolitan and sophisticated, Amy has been much more sheltered, and has hardly travelled at all. So her visit to Europe brings her many new experiences.
Sylvie's narration starts earlier in time, before she disappeared, when her grandmother summons her to visit. The old lady, her mother's mother, is dying. Sylvie goes to Holland and stays with the family in the smallish town where she grew up with as a child. The old woman is very close to her but they have not seen each other since Sylvie left a couple of decades ago. The rest of the family has strong reactions to her arrival. Her aunt Helena is hostile to her, while the aunt's husband is very quiet and apparently conflicted. Her cousin Lucas had been close with her as a child, and is now a professional photographer, who takes wonderful portraits. They spend a lot of time together, and they seem to have feelings for each other.
Both Sylvie and Amy describe the life of people of Chinese heritage in the Netherlands, where they stand out. Here the book is educational as we learn not just about the food and the bicycle culture, but also racism and exclusion. Since Jean Kwok married a Dutchman and is living there raising their children, she presumably is basing what she describes on what she has seen or heard about herself.
The third narrator is Ma, the mother of Sylvie and Amy. She is uneducated and Kwok writes her as talking in English as if literally translated from her native tongue. This is far from an easy task, and Kwok puts many striking and odd idioms and metaphors in the woman's mouth. Her part is far less than those of the other two narrators. She is trying to be respectful of the old ways and provide some authenticity, but she is on thin ice. As the novel unfolds, the character of Ma develops, but she seems trapped by her cultural beliefs and traditions. The danger that Kwok faces is making the old ways look ridiculous and extremely limited, and she does not provide enough context to avoid this.
The story starts out as a rather traditional mystery, but as it proceeds, many of the characters become darker and less likeable. It is not just the secrets the family keep but also their values and superstitions that push them towards a tragic ending. Sylvie's language especially takes on the tone of hackneyed romance novels and as her sophistication disappears, she becomes increasingly tiresome.
In the audiobook recording, the voice actor playing Sylvie (there's no indication of who plays which character) has a challenge, giving her a moody and dramatically dour tone. She also gives voice to the angry Helena, who is especially unlikable. On top of that, she has to perform the Dutch male accents, which come across as almost comical. The actor playing Ma has an equally difficult challenge, uttering odd and rather funny phrases with a cultural seriousness. It's not clear how this could be done without a jarring effect, so the listener's sympathy for the performer is evoked. It's always a relief when the narration returns to Amy, who has a fresher young perspective and who has to utter fewer clichéd phrases.
So there is much to make the listener groan during the eleven or so hours of the Searching for Sylvie Lee audiobook. It is striking that the mystery is engaging enough to keep the listener going rather than just give up. There's enough here about immigrant life in the US and Holland to be interesting, but ultimately it depicts the characters as hostage to a culture that drives them to misery.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.