Jean Kwok on how Searching for Sylvie Lee became this summer’s book club sensation
Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee had quite a publication day.
Just as the novel started hitting bookstores on the morning of June 4, Jenna Bush Hager announced it on the Today show as her next book club pick. Then, hours later, Emma Roberts did exactly the same thing via her book club, Belletrist, across social media. So arrived national attention, widespread buzz, and an instant spot on the New York Times best-seller list. “It’s the kind of thing you do daydream about, but don’t expect it to ever happen,” Kwok (Girl in Translation; Mambo in Chinatown) tells EW. “To this day, when I see those pictures with Jenna and her co-anchors with my book, I am sure someone is pranking me.”
“This book has been in an in-house favorite since acquisition and when outside influencers like Jenna share our love for a book, we know we have something really special on our hands,” adds Jennifer Hart, SVP and Associate Publisher of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. “At a time when readers are looking for more ‘own voices’ stories, it is so important to have someone like Jenna shine a light on Jean’s novel.”
As the influence — and volume — of celebrity book clubs continues to ramp up, Kwok’s Sylvie Lee finds itself in an enviable position: Before millions of viewers and followers, it’s emerged as the summer read of choice. With all the attention, Kwok notes, “The book is reaching readers that it probably would not have otherwise.” But perhaps more importantly, it’s sticking — as we head into July, Sylvie Lee is still one of the season’s hottest reads.
EW caught up with Lee to break down the book’s plot, themes, and lingering questions. Below, we unpack why Searching for Sylvie Lee is developing into a summer sensation.
THERE’S SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
At its core, Searching for Sylvie Lee is a mystery. The novel’s eponymous golden child has gone missing after visiting the Netherlands, where she grew up with her aunt and uncle; as the story begins, her sister, Amy, leaves her home in New York to piece together what happened. “It’s designed to suck in the reader — and pull you in with the number of questions that arise and need to be answered — so you can read it simply on that level for pleasure,” says Kwok. “[But] for me, the book was about many other things. It was about culture and language and compassion and understanding each other.”
She continues: “The central question for me in the book is, how well can we truly know the people we love most in this world and what happens when they surprise us?” Sylvie’s disappearance propels Amy to dig deeper into her family’s unexpected past, but what she encounters along the way — racism, family tensions, romance — fleshes out the novel. This points to the story’s multifaceted appeal: It has layers. “People can read it on whichever level they feel comfortable, whatever they want to enjoy it for,” Kwok says. “If they want to just have a really fun, great read, or a moving mother-daughter story, or a love story, or a suspenseful mystery, that’s all great. If they want to read about immigration and culture and language, it’s also in the book.” Speaking of which…
“The book is in English, but the inner dialogue is in each person’s native language,” Kwok tells EW. The story develops as three distinct narrators each relay their perspective of events: “For the mother, she’s thinking in Chinese; Sylvie, the golden child who disappears, is thinking in Dutch; and Amy, the younger timid sister, is thinking in English. One of the things I really wanted to convey with the book is how impenetrable that curtain of language and culture can be.” Amy spends much of the novel discovering things about Sylvie that don’t match up with the picture-perfect image she once had of her lovable, Ivy League grad older sister. Their mother isn’t quite what Amy thought either — for starters, she’s far less timid — and these false assumptions were partially due to the fact that Amy isn’t fluent in her mother’s native Chinese while her mother has never fully mastered English. Kwok’s novel seeks to understand what happens “when the language of our hearts is different from the language of the people that we love the most,” a problem that can arise in immigrant families where there is a language barrier.
THE NARRATORS ARE RELATABLE, NUANCED, AND UNRELIABLE
“I tend to love unreliable narrators,” Kwok admits. ”But what I realized when I was writing this book was that my narrators are unreliable not because they’re alcoholics or drug abusers or mentally unstable, but simply because they are human.” Her characters are always judging themselves. Most people are in awe of Sylvie and her accomplishments, yet Sylvie herself can’t help but remember the crooked tooth and lazy eye of her childhood, constantly worrying about her unlikability. It’s unclear who knows the true Sylvie more: Sylvie herself, who is overly critical of her own faults, or Amy, who can’t seem to help but worship her older sister. Ultimately, Kwok says, “They are unreliable the way we all are.”
IT SPARKS DISCUSSION
Safe to say, Sylvie Lee offers plenty to talk about — get a few glasses of Pinot Grigio in your fellow book-clubbers, and you may even find some heated debates brewing. “Any issues that we have to deal with are not confined to any single country or place,” Kwok says. Already her readers have voiced opinions about the racism Kwok’s characters encounter in the Netherlands, where Sylvie lived before disappearing. “I had readers say, ‘You know, I found those racist incidents so jarring, I’m not sure they belong in the book.’ But the point is, they are jarring. They’re jarring to me too. I’m shocked when someone says something to me. But it is something that happens and that’s something else I wanted people to be aware of after reading the novel.” Besides this, there’s a lot to discuss: sexual tensions between cousins, a scandalous love affair, and family secrets that have been kept hidden for good reason. While debates abound, there’s one thing your book club can agree on: Searching for Sylvie Lee is the book club pick of the summer.
Additional reporting by David Canfield