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White Ivy

Review

White Ivy

From newcomer Susie Yang comes WHITE IVY, a dark and dazzling debut about the lines between wealth and poverty, obsession and infatuation, honesty and truth.

Raised by Chinese American immigrants in a small town outside of Boston, Ivy Lin is born into a lifetime of contradictions. Her family is poor and quick to discipline, but their expectations for her are sky-high: a full-ride to an elite university, a doctorate and a perfect family. Although they are able to enroll her in a prestigious prep school, they shudder and scold her when she tries too hard to conform with her privileged peers. Her parents complain about scraping by, but balk at the thought of her getting a job to help them with the bills. Then there’s her grandmother, Meifeng, a seemingly innocent old lady who spends her weekends pilfering from secondhand stores and garage sales. She explains away her misdeeds as being equally as bad as the Americans who were so careless with their items that they did not notice her thefts.

"WHITE IVY is a shocking and subversive novel... [I]t is a perfect study of the American dream --- and the nightmare that often greets those trying to achieve it."

Growing up as an outsider in every sense of the word, Ivy's feeling of emptiness blooms into wanting more. Educated by her grandmother in the act of petty theft, she follows suit, amassing a collection of trendy American clothes, home electronics and other items of teenage social currency. But fitting in is not her only desire: Ivy is hopelessly, endlessly in love with Gideon Speyer, the town golden boy. Just when she feels their orbits colliding, her mother catches on to her schemes and sends her to China to reevaluate her priorities.

When Ivy returns to America the following autumn, her family has moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and her dreams of securing Gideon evaporate. With the single-minded focus of a girl obsessed, she hunkers down and studies, flitting from boyfriend to boyfriend until she gains entry to a women’s college, eventually settling down as a teacher in Boston. It is here where she bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, and the chance encounter feels like fate --- a reckoning with all that the universe owes her. With the social-climbing skills of a femme fatale and the ability to mold herself to nearly any scenario, Ivy soon finds herself dating Gideon and ensconced in his thoroughly American family --- and all of the skeletons in their closets.

However, what Ivy couldn’t have planned for is the resurgence of another character from her lowly past in Massachusetts: her childhood neighbor, Roux. Roux was the only person who saw her --- truly saw her --- when she was just the strange “exotic” girl in their classroom. He knows all about her past, including the petty thefts and dalliances with romance, and now he, too, has become an extra limb on the Speyer family tree. With her past and present rapidly colliding, and her dark side threatening to take control, Ivy must decide what is really worth fighting for and what her experiences have made her become.

WHITE IVY is a slow-burn novel with an eerie tone that is as literary as it is thrilling. In case it was not clear already, Ivy is not a likable character, nor is she someone you want to root for. And yet, through Yang’s deft combination of themes of classism and tokenism and Ivy’s very human yearnings for success and privilege, she becomes a bit of an antihero, a reminder of the draw of power and those who wield it. But what truly sets the book apart from other novels with unlikable protagonists and social climbers is Ivy’s astute observations on wealth. She knows --- has always known --- that her peers are privileged and powerful, but although she covets their wealth, she also sees that their senses of comfort and ownership in the world come from their whiteness and a shared history of coming out on top.

Ivy’s breathless pursuit of the American dream is not an unfamiliar story, but in Yang’s hands it is fresh and unflinching. Her dangerous obsession is laid bare for readers to see every ugly, greedy thought, and somehow she is never portrayed as villainous or callous. She is merely responding to the world of contradictions around her and finding the small pockets where she can reclaim some power.

The reemergence of Roux creates a bit of a love triangle in Ivy’s life that added some real depth to WHITE IVY. After watching Ivy play her role as the social climber for so long, it was exhilarating to see her passion play out on the page. That said, it took so long to get there that I fear some readers will abandon the novel too early. Without a murder or mass catastrophe, its slow burn can sometimes feel draining, and although Yang’s prose is lyrical and poetic, there is a lack of action in the middle of the book that her clever turns of phrase cannot always support.

WHITE IVY is a shocking and subversive novel, as well-suited to fans of GONE GIRL as it is to readers of THE TALENTED MISS FARWELL. Filled with keen and searingly timely insights on the immigrant experience in America, the stark contrasts between social classes, and the ways that women must bend themselves to society's expectations, it is a perfect study of the American dream --- and the nightmare that often greets those trying to achieve it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 6, 2020

White Ivy
by Susie Yang

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982100591
  • ISBN-13: 9781982100599