BookBrowse Reviews White Ivy by Susie Yang

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White Ivy

by Susie Yang

White Ivy by Susie Yang X
White Ivy by Susie Yang
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2020, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Debbie Morrison
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Part thriller, part coming-of-age story, White Ivy examines wealth, privilege and the first generation immigrant experience through the lens of a fascinating protagonist.

In many ways, Ivy Lin, the protagonist of Susie Yang's debut novel White Ivy, typifies the story of a first-generation immigrant — she has to navigate issues of language, culture and social integration. For Ivy, this difficult process is the site of a schism between who she was as a child in China and the hyphenated version of herself that develops in America. The novel details how much of her life is spent negotiating and trying to reconcile these parts of herself. And yet this is not what makes Ivy such an unforgettable character. In the vein of Tom Ripley and other social climbing literary characters, Ivy is acutely damaged. But as the novel progresses, the source of this damage remains unclear. Or rather, the source seems to be dispersed throughout every area of her life.

When she is five, her parents send for her to live with them in the U.S., and a very young Ivy is understandably overwhelmed by the reunion and by the newness of America. Her parents react to her with anger, and she responds with a dissociation "not unlike being submerged in a bathtub, where everything felt both expansive and compressed." Like simultaneous expansion and compression, Ivy's life is a series of opposing forces. She is a person whose love is "passionate but singular; complete devotion or none at all." For example, while she has little attachment to most of the people around her, she eventually forms a decades-long infatuation with a boy she barely knows.

Not long after her arrival in the U.S., Ivy's grandmother, Meifeng, comes to live with her family. Through Meifeng Ivy learns the two most fundamental, yet contradictory, traits that characterize her adolescence and adulthood: "self-reliance and opportunism." While her parents demand stellar grades and obedience at home, her grandmother encourages her to flout rules. Under Meifeng's tutelage, Ivy becomes a thief who escapes notice because she is also a masterful liar. Though she seems unable (or unwilling) to choose between obedience and opportunism, Ivy is aware of her own cognitive dissonance, and to some degree she manages to merge the two parts of herself. We learn that "[y]ears of reconciling her grandmother's teachings with her American values had somehow culminated in a confused but firm belief that in order to become the 'good,' ting hua girl everyone asked of her, she had to use 'smart' methods."

Ivy's emotional damage also expresses itself in her attempts at assimilation as she internalizes Western beauty standards. Young Ivy is at once confident in her tough, streetwise persona and enormously self-conscious. She "would have traded her face a thousand times over for a blue-eyed, blond-haired version like the Satterfield twins, or even a red-headed, freckly version like Liza Johnson, instead of her own Chinese one…" One of the great ironies in Ivy's belief is that she looks just like her mother, who grew up poor but uncommonly beautiful. This confluence of money and love, or perhaps more accurately love with money, emerges as one of Ivy's most significant areas of fractured thinking.

Having been raised by parents and a grandmother who treat scarcity as an inevitability, Ivy venerates wealth above all else. This reverence is heightened by a trip to China where she is cared for by a rich aunt who showers her with expensive presents. Upon her return to the U.S., Ivy finds her family in financial ruin and begins to fantasize about money as a means of security and power. Readers learn that "[t]he experience of wealth, if only secondhand, had left its indelible mark on her heart, so that long after the details of Sunrin's house and car had faded from her mind, she would remember what it felt like when shopgirls swirled around her, their faces gleaming with respect and deference, and herself, fearless in the possession of something no one could take away from her." This longing for status, to be someone, only intensifies when Ivy meets Gideon Speyer. Gideon is an all-American boy with all of the self-assurance that money (and whiteness) provide, and his life becomes the standard to which Ivy will forever judge her own. Years later, when romance ensues between the two, Ivy finds herself increasingly desperate to hold onto the promise of wealth and social status that their union would provide.

To say much more would spoil the truly white-knuckle ride. White Ivy has been described as a thriller, a dark romance, a coming-of-age story and more. This excellent and thought-provoking novel is as difficult to classify and unpredictable as Ivy herself. But one thing is certain — readers won't soon forget it, nor its complex protagonist, Ivy Lin.

Reviewed by Debbie Morrison

This review is from the White Ivy. It first ran in the February 3, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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