This month, I am reading up a storm. Ironically, I noticed a theme. A lot of the books I am reading are by women of Asian descent. Today, I am going to discuss two such female writers who wrote “Searching for Sylvie Lee” and “The Night Tiger,” two very different books set on opposite sides of the world.
Searching for Sylvie Lee
You’ve probably heard of this book. It was Jenna Bush Hager’s book club choice for June 2019. It was also the book club pick for The Book Club Girl.
The great thing about Jean Kwok’s book being featured in different book clubs is that it gives the readers a chance to connect and interact with her.
Personally, I love this book. This mystery takes place between New York (Queens) and The Netherlands, two places the author has called home.
Destination: New York City and The Netherlands
A poignant and suspenseful drama that untangles the complicated ties binding three women—two sisters and their mother—in one Chinese immigrant family and explores what happens when the eldest daughter disappears, and a series of family secrets emerge, from the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Translation
It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family, flies to the Netherlands for one final visit with her dying grandmother—and then vanishes.
Amy, the sheltered baby of the Lee family, is too young to remember a time when her parents were newly immigrated and too poor to keep Sylvie. Seven years older, Sylvie was raised by a distant relative in a faraway, foreign place, and didn’t rejoin her family in America until age nine. Timid and shy, Amy has always looked up to her sister, the fierce and fearless protector who showered her with unconditional love.
But what happened to Sylvie? Amy and her parents are distraught and desperate for answers. Sylvie has always looked out for them. Now, it’s Amy’s turn to help. Terrified yet determined, Amy retraces her sister’s movements, flying to the last place Sylvie was seen. But instead of simple answers, she discovers something much more valuable: the truth. Sylvie, the golden girl, kept painful secrets . . . secrets that will reveal more about Amy’s complicated family—and herself—than she ever could have imagined.
A deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing, Searching for Sylvie Lee is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of an immigrant family. It is a profound exploration of the many ways culture and language can divide us and the impossibility of ever truly knowing someone—especially those we love.
So. Ummm. Wow. The ending is intense! I had such a mixture of emotions. I was screaming, going, “WHAT?!” Yet, I was also sad. But I don’t know if I was sad for what happened, or if I was sad because I saw myself as Sylvie Lee.
There are a lot of things that Asian Americans, or frankly any Asian immigrant, go through that is hard to explain to a culture that will never know what it is like to not be white. I think that is one of the most important statements made in this story.
Add to that discrimination, what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world. The struggle to be accepted as an equal and not a piece of meat…I mean, can anybody win if they are not male and white?
Jean Kwok does an excellent job explaining why some Asian Americans work so hard to be perfect. We are trying to be accepted in a culture that will not accept us. From the good grades to the perfect schools to the perfect jobs and husbands…it is all about trying to be accepted and loved in a world that rejects us. In so many ways, Sylvie Lee is me. And maybe that is the part that made me sad. I could see her in me and it made me feel that maybe I, too, want to be free. [Jean Kwok, you are killing me here!]
My site is called Perfectionist Wannabe. I think Sylvie Lee explained to me exactly what I could not explain to myself, maybe even why I settled on this site’s title.
The story is deep. Way too deep.
Mind you, everyone takes different things from stories. For me, it was the profound messages I could relate to. Someone who does not know what it is like to be an Asian woman will not take the same message from this story. Yet, that is kind of the point Jean Kwok is making.
An excellent read. This is a must for everyone.[Side Note: Couscous. I love that Jean included her cat in the story. I think I’m going to have to write Matthew Lucifer into my book.]
The Night Tiger
I chose this book as my Book of the Month a few months ago. Like Pachinko, I kept thinking…I will get to this eventually. I finally forced myself to pick it up and then I thought, “I should not have waited so long to read this.”
A sweeping historical novel about a dancehall girl and an orphan boy whose fates entangle over an old Chinese superstition about men who turn into tigers.
When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.
Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.
As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.
Loved this story from start to finish.
I learned a lot about the mysticism of Malaya. I love stories like this because you learn a lot about superstitions and the culture of the people. This really appealed to the anthropologist/archaeologist in me.
My favorite character is definitely Ren. Here’s this 10 year old orphan boy who is so smart and more in tune to his intuition and the universe than anyone else in the book. He is the one who has suffered the most loss, but doesn’t let it weigh him down. Here he is saving people’s lives, and has the biggest heart of all of them. He cares about everyone more than they care about themselves.
I wish we were all like Ren.
In “The Night Tiger,” I had just finished the part where she references “The Ghost Bride.” I was not even aware of the author’s other titles until someone posted a picture of her book “The Ghost Bride.” Absolutely love when there’s a hint to a previous title. That book is queued up to be my next read.
The story is very enjoyable. I definitely recommend it.
This month was definitely a great month for literature by women of Asian descent. After I read these two books, I ended up reading a graphic novel series written by two Asian women. Then I took a look at my recent purchases over the last few months. The majority of the books I purchased are written by Asian women. I kept thinking it is about time there were more female Asian writers on the market.
When I was first discovering my Asian roots (something my mother never discussed), I was in college. In the mid-90’s, I only had Amy Tan. “The Joy Luck Club” was the first Asian American film I ever saw. It became my window into a world that made me feel like I was not alone. I absorbed every single Amy Tan book I could get my hands on.
Since then, books written by Asian women became sparse. The only other author I knew of was Adeline Yen Mah. Now, we see more and more Asian women writing incredible stories.
I think over the last few years, I am drawn more towards choosing books by Asian women. I don’t do this purposely. The titles and the stories are what draw me in. When I check my shelves later, I see a theme. I am drawn to Asian women telling their stories; and they are incredible stories.
The stories that really stay with me are the ones written by Asian women. From Kim Thuy who wrote “Ru” and “Man” to Lisa See and Min Jin Lee, the stories are incredible. Maybe it’s that Sylvie Lee in all of us that inspires them to work hard to be perfect in what they are creating that explains why I have not read a bad book from an Asian woman. Everything has been 5 stars across the board.
Maybe that Sylvie Lee in us all is the reason why women of Asian descent write better books. And that is probably the reason why I freak out all of the time as I write my book…that need to be perfect in order to be loved and accepted by a culture that will never understand what it is like to be us.
Part of me does not know if that desire is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it is a bad thing, but at the same time, these women are making something extraordinary. It is not mediocre. It is exceptional. If we did not strive for that level of perfectionism, we would be like everybody else.
In an odd way, maybe we are just trying to prove we are better than that culture that does not accept us. These women are definitely proving that we are.[Side Note: Shout out to all the book lovers who have fur babies. There seems to be a direct correlation between book lovers and animal lovers.]