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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.