Tag Archives: Jean Kwok


Searching For Sylvie Lee – which has dominated summer best-of lists and is the June Today Show Read With Jenna pick – is the third novel from Jean Kwok (after Girl In Translation (reviewed here) and Mambo In Chinatown (reviewed here). It came out at the beginning of the month and I just finished it on audio.

Like Kwok’s earlier books, Searching For Sylvie Lee is about immigration, identity, family and loss. Sylvie Lee was born to Chinese parents in New York City but was sent to live with her grandmother and cousins in the Netherlands as an infant. She moved back to the States as an awkward 9 year-old, joining her parents and baby sister Amy in New York, but never felt that she fit in. She worked hard, attended Princeton and married a white guy from a rich family and got a job at an investment bank. When the novel opens, she has gone back to the Netherlands to see her dying grandmother and reconnect with her family in Amsterdam. When Sylvie disappears while in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls Amy (now in her 20s) to see if she has heard from her. Amy, frantic, travels to the Netherlands to retrace her sister’s steps and try to find out what happened to her.

Kwok is expert at communicating the loneliness and isolation that comes from feeling that you don’t belong, or that you are far from people who love and understand you. She does it again here in Searching For Sylvie Lee. Sylvie never fit in in Amsterdam as a child, one of only a few Chinese kids in her school, and when she moved back in with her parents in New York, their family unit had formed without her. Meanwhile, there are secrets and resentments among her Amsterdam family that Sylvie never understood, relying only on her grandmother and cousin for emotional intimacy. The theme of disconnection and misunderstanding is threaded strongly through Searching For Sylvie Lee, even as the thriller-y mystery of Sylvie’s fate propels the story along.

I especially enjoyed Kwok’s atmospheric descriptions of Amsterdam and Venice, where Sylvie and Lukas spend a weekend. Those cities play their own role in the book, with the buildings and water in both providing backdrops to pivotal scenes and interactions. The gondolas, the bicycles, even the food come into sharp relief through Kwok’s sensuous writing. The scenery also reinforces the sense of loneliness that often pervades the book.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a bit of a departure from Kwok’s earlier books, and while I am not naturally drawn to thrillers, there is enough else here to make for a very compelling read.

I listened to Searching For Sylvie Lee on audio. There are three narrators, one each for Amy, Sylvie and their mother. The narrators – Angela Lin, Samantha Quan and Caroline McLaughlin – did a very good job of conveying these three characters’ different viewpoints and personalities. The rapid rotation among the three voices kept the audio moving at a fast pace, but not too fast to blur the emotional impact of Kwok’s writing. On the most recent episode of The Readerly Report podcast, Kwok talked to Nicole and me about the process of choosing narrators for the audio version (she was heavily involved) and why she felt it was so important to have three different voices.


Jean Kwok’s first novel, Girl in Translation, told the story of Kimberly Chang, a Chinese immigrant living with her mother in Chinatown and trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar Western world of privilege

Kwok’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, addresses some similar themes. It’s about Charlie Wong, a woman in her early twenties living with her father and younger sister in Chinatown. She works alongside her father in a noodle shop washing dishes, but aspires to do anything else that would get her out of the restaurant. She was not a good student and has had a bad track record in other jobs, so she feels particularly stuck. Meanwhile, her 11 year-old sister Lisa, who is bright and engaged, has started developing some strange medical problems that are worrying Charlie and her father.

The novel takes off when Charlie applies for a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dancing school. Unexpectedly, she gets the job. She works as a receptionist until one of her mistakes causes an upcoming class to be left without an instructor available. With no other options, the school management decides that Charlie must teach the class. She gets a crash course in ballroom dancing, and her new life as a dance instructor is born.

Mambo in Chinatown is a gentle, slow-paced story about Charlie’s breaking away from her strict Chinese father and embracing a Western life, one that comes with showier clothes, non-Chinese men, and a lot of Latin rhythms. At the same time, she has to balance her new life and interests with looking after her sister and trying to unearth the problems behind Lisa’s troubling symptoms. She is very loyal to her father, a widower, and has many familial and societal expectations to live up to which come into conflict with her newly-discovered love of dancing.

I liked Mambo in Chinatown, though perhaps not as much as Girl in Translation. Where Kimberly was stubborn and focused, Charlie was at times frustratingly scattered and meek. I understood the tension she faced over the Eastern and Western forces in her life, but I thought some of it seemed a bit extreme. (Would no one – especially Charlie – have insisted that Lisa see a Western doctor?). I did enjoy the glimpses into life in Chinatown – the witch doctor, the tai chi instructor, the matchmaking – and was moved by the difficult economic circumstances that the Wongs were in, which prevented the family from enjoying almost any luxuries. I think dance is a hard thing to convey in writing, but Kwok did a good job of communicating what Charlie and her partner were doing without getting too mired in steps and dance terminology.

I listened to Mambo in Chinatown mostly on audio, and thought the narrator, Angela Lin, did a great job. She had good accents, particularly for Pa, and I liked her depiction of the different dance instructors. I wasn’t crazy about her voicing of Lisa, who was perhaps more whiny than necessary. But her voice overall was soothing and calm, which was a good match for Kwok’s tone and her style of writing.

Overall, Mambo in Chinatown was an enjoyable and memorable read. I am a big fan of Kwok’s, and will read anything she writes!

Literary Fiction for Summer

I have a post in the most recent issue of Readerly Magazine about some rewarding literary fiction picks for summer. If you’re looking for something substantive, you might enjoy these books from some of my favorite authors.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

I live in DC, and I have a lot of friends who are furloughed thanks to the federal budget impasse. I am sure that some of you guys are getting restless at home with all the unexpected downtime. (Once your closets are cleaned out and you’ve gone to the gym, what are you supposed to do with your time?) While I hope for everyone’s sake that the furlough ends soon, in case it extends another week or two, here are some books to consider picking up while you’re at home. They aren’t terribly long, so you should be able to finish one or two before you go back to work, and they are engrossing enough to keep your mind off the annoying situation on Capitol Hill keeping you from work.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. This one just came out, and I just started it, so I don’t have a review yet to link to. But Lahiri’s other books are wonderful (The Namesake is my favorite), and this one is also supposed to be great. Check out Swapna’s review at S.Krishna’s Books. She is an East Asian fiction expert, so she knows of which she blogs. If you haven’t read The Namesake yet, that’s another great furlough read. You could even make a whole day of it and rent the movie afterwards – here’s my take on Book vs. Movie: The Namesake.

2. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. This isn’t Maynard’s latest novel, but I really liked it and think it’d make an excellent furlough read. It’s about a long weekend, told through the eyes of a 13 year-old boy whose mother has taken in a fugitive. Labor Day is sad and haunting but memorable. Bonus: it’s being made into a movie with Kate Winslet due out at the end of the year. Hopefully it will NOT be a furlough movie.

3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I loved this book (as have millions of others). If you missed it in 2010, it’s the story of an immigrant girl from Hong Kong who toils away in a New York City sweatshop while trying to learn English and ultimately get accepted to college.  Girl in Translation is heartbreaking and eye-opening, and would be a good book to get your mind off your own problems.

4. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I read this one last fall, and it has really stayed with me. It’s about a dystopian world in which the earth’s rotation has slowed down. The Age of Miracles is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Walker’s depiction of the gradual changes brought on by the slowdown, and the ways in which people reacted to those changes, was both realistic and totally original. It’s a stressful read, but again, it will take your mind off the furlough.

5. Anything by Jennifer Haigh, but in particular The Condition and Baker Towers. I love everything this woman has ever written, but if you’re just starting out with Haigh, try those first. They are deeply involving and moving novels that suck you in with measured prose and perfectly paced storytelling.

6.  Finally, you can read a debut novel BY a furloughed government worker, Michael Landweber. We is his highly creative book about a fortysomething who finds that he can go back in time into the mind of his seven-year self, thus presenting the opportunity to prevent a terrible event that befell his sister. It’s a quick, exhilarating read by a promising new writer.

So while you’re passing the hours at home trying not to check your Blackberry (yes, Blackberry – this is the government), give these books a try. And then let me know what you thought.


Interview with Jean Kwok, author of GIRL IN TRANSLATION

Kwok I was extremely lucky to get hooked up with Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation, through a friend of a friend. I read her book in June and really liked it – here is my review. She answered some questions for me over email, and I am thrilled to share them here. Thank you, Jean!

One warning – the answer to the last question contains spoilers. Don't read it if you haven't read Girl in Translation yet! I don't want to spoil the book for you. Jean said that she hasn't answered that question before, though she has wanted to, so I am grateful to her for answering it here.

Q: I noticed that the style of writing in Girl in Translation changed over the course of the book – it started out somewhat choppy and got more sophisticated as it went along. I am guessing that it was intended to mirror Kimberly's facility with English. Can you confirm?

A: You are exactly right.  I wanted to my readers to truly undergo the immigrant experience in a way I hadn't seen done in fiction before.  I used language as a filter, so that all we could understand of English was what Kimberly could, but we could hear Chinese expressions like a native speaker.  I wanted readers to feel what it was like to be on the other side of the language barrier, so that some English was simply gibberish, and they could feel the frustrations that a foreigner feels.  The gradual change in style was indeed meant to mirror Kimberly's growing sophistication with the language and culture. 

Q. On your website, you said that you wrote the book for your mother, so that people could see how clever she was in Chinese (which doesn't always translate in English). Has she read Girl in Translation in Chinese? In English? What was her reaction?

My mother hasn't been able to read the novel, because she still doesn't speak English.  However, the novel has gotten enough international attention that articles about it have been published in Chinese, and she has read those.  She's proud of me, but more importantly, I think that the publication of the novel has transformed my family's perception of our past.  We (myself included) were always very secretive regarding our poor background and the hardships we'd overcome.  It'd been a source of shame, but now that the novel is out, and people have responded so warmly, we've all grown to perceive our background as a source of pride instead.  Other people from similar backgrounds have told me how glad they were to read the novel, to hear such injustices told aloud, and to feel that their story had been truthfully told and appreciated.

Q. You wrote on your website that you sometimes felt closer to books than to anyone you knew. I look at books as friends, as well, and for that reason I have resisted e-readers and downloadable books. I like to revisit them and scan their spines on my shelves. What's your opinion of electronic books?
I love my paper books and find it a sacrilege to write in them or turn down their pages.  There is absolutely nothing like a real book, and ebooks could never replace them.  I love having the sense of physically where I am in the book, the pages that are well-worn because I've read them over and over again.

However, I am a fan of electronic books as well.  I fully understand why some people don't like them, and the experience of reading them is different, but I love them as an addition to paper books.  First of all, I live in Holland, so my ebook reader (I have a Kindle) allows me to get books instantly and without shipping and customs fees.  Secondly, I read so much and for so many different reasons.  Often, I need to read a book for practical reasons, like research or because I need to see what an author is doing with structure or language.  There are books that I'll only read once and don't need to take up space on my shelf.  Finally, I travel a lot for book tours and publicity, and need to pack light.  Since I read fast, I can't bring enough books to fill up the hours I spend in airports.  Instead of staring at the walls, I can now read, so I buy an extra ebook version of books I like.

I find that because I have an ebook reader, I buy many more books than I would otherwise.  When I really enjoy a book on my Kindle, I always buy the paper version as well.  In fact, if I know it'll be a book I'll love (when written by a favorite author, for example), I always buy the real book and the ebook!  It's true that I don't feel like I really "own" a book until I have the paper one.

Basically, I use my ebook reader for books that I read only once (which I probably wouldn't have bought otherwise) and for travel.  When I truly like a book, I now buy it twice: once in paper and once for the ebook reader!
Q. Can you share some details about what you're working on now? I know that there are many people who are eager for your next book!
That's very nice to hear!  I am hard at work on my next novel now, and hope to finish it in the first half of next year.  It draws upon my own experience in the professional ballroom dance world.  I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia.  In that time, I taught dance lessons and did shows and competitions.  This novel is set both in Chinatown and in the professional ballroom dance world.  I love bringing readers into new worlds, and I hope that this will be something fresh and interesting for them.

I'll be posting the latest news on my website and Facebook fan page:

Q. The ending – there were two distinct directions you could have taken. What made you choose the one you did? I was surprised by it, and would love to know what pushed you in that direction.
I don't feel that I chose this ending because I saw the entire story in a flash — I had an image of the child under the mannequin, the older woman looking at her, and the man coming into the room, and the entire book unfurled before my eyes, including this ending.  It was always an integral part of the novel for me.  The one change that I do regret a bit is that the last chapter was originally written as an epilogue, and in the course of editing the book, I felt that the title "Epilogue" was no longer necessary and deleted it.  Some readers have protested the change in pacing in the last chapter, and I think the fact that it was an epilogue would have clarified a lot. 

The decisions that Kimberly made were the ones that I felt were true and natural to her character. Remember, she isn't fully Americanized and what she did was in keeping with her Chinese values, including preserving the integrity of the family at all costs.  If you've already read the book, here is a fuller discussion:



I know that the ending of the novel has inspired fierce debate.  I too wish that she could have simply told Matt the truth, and it just KILLS me that she didn't reveal everything to him.  I also wish they could have ridden off into the sunset together, since they love each other so passionately.

However, given Kimberly's Chinese heritage, what she did was the right choice.  Kimberly's reticence, her ability to stay silent about something so important, is quite Chinese and it is something  that is at odds with the openness of American culture. She sacrificed herself for Matt's happiness with his own family.  She also understood that, in the end, he wasn't the right man for her. They love each other with all their hearts, but that's not enough to build a life together.  He couldn't be happy with a wife as ambitious and talented and independent as she was.  In the end, Kimberly had to choose who she truly was over who she wanted to be with.

Of course, I also recognize that the story hasn't been fully played out.  For one thing, there is Jason, who will grow up and ask questions.  While I won't write a sequel to this novel (because it would be tacked-on), I do know what happens to the characters in the coming years and will be giving readers brief cameos of some of the characters in future books.  Rest assured that Kimberly will be just fine.


Kwok Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok seems to be one of the hot novels of the summer, and I was lucky to score a copy from Riverhead as part of the Silicon Valley Moms June Book Club. (Hi FTC!)

Girl in Translation is about Kimberly Chang, a girl who immigrates with her mother to New York from Hong Kong when she is 11 years old. They are penniless upon arrival, and in fact indebted to Kimberly's Aunt Paula, who paid their way to the U.S. and set them up in a roach- and rat-infested apartment in a bad neighborhood. They immediately begin work "finishing" clothes in one of Paula's sweatshops, where Kimberly spends her afternoons after bewildering days in a Brooklyn public school.

Kimberly is a very good student, which school administrators quickly recognize, and she wins a full scholarship to an elite private school in Brooklyn. Girl in Translation is about Kimberly's double life – that of a destitute yet brilliant and hardworking immigrant daughter trying to support her mother and improve their circumstances, and at the same time a teenager grappling with social acceptance, romance, friendship, and the trappings of privilege that surround her.

Girl in Translation is an engrossing and satisfying story. Kwok's narration is sparse and almost cold at times, which I suspect is due to her use of language to depict Kimberly's level of comprehension and her own mastery of English. The opening chapters are a bit choppy, just as Kimberly's own diction would have been, and as the book wears on, the descriptions get more robust and the conveying of emotion more sophisticated.

There are many memorable (and at times heartbreaking) scenes in the book, such as the description of the apartment she shared with her mother; her mother's many sacrifices, both material and emotional; and their mistreatment at the hands of her aunt. There is also a love story throughout the book which ultimately is a very sad one. I found the last chapter a bit surprising, and I must confess that it shook my faith in Kimberly's integrity as a character. I'd love to know more about how Kwok arrived at the ending that she did. (I don't feel that I can go into more detail here without spoiling the book for those who haven't read it.)

I highly recommend the Q&A about Girl in Translation on the Penguin website (thanks to Booking Mama for sending me there) and there is a lot more about Jean Kwok on her own website. It was very interesting to read about the parallels between Kimberly's life and the author's own immigrant experiences. I'd love to know even more.

This is an eye-opening book and a very worthwhile read.