“She never got too greedy. She never got sloppy. And most important, she never got caught.”
Ivy Lin gives characters like Madame Bovary, Becky Sharp, and Lily Bart a run for their money. She’s terrible (and I loved her).
White Ivy is an addictive and razor-sharp debut novel. Susie Yang has spun a deliciously dark and deeply beguiling story, one that presents its readers with a piercing examination of class, gender, and culture. Part coming-of-age part psychological thriller White Ivy makes for a subversive and layered character study. The novel’s adroit commentary on privilege and powers is as unsettling as it is gripping. Yang’s taut storytelling not only amps up the tension between her characters but makes White Ivy into an edge-of-your-seat read. Fans of Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell should definitely consider picking this up.
The novel’s very first line functions as a warning of sorts: “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.”
Ivy is indeed a thief. After spending her early years in the care of her grandmother, who would later provide her with an invaluable (if unorthodox) education in shoplifting, Ivy is reunited with her parents in America. Over the course of her childhood Ivy begins to despise her family and everything they stand for. By the time she’s a teenager, Ivy feels little other than loathing toward them. Her distorted sense of self and dubious worldview has been shaped by the books she read as a child. In a manner very reminiscent of Madame Bovary, Ivy’s attitude towards others and herself is irrevocably shaped by these fictions. While Emma read medieval romances that made her long for poetry-reciting-knights-in-shining-armour, Ivy’s imagination is populated by half-formed images of wealth, beauty, and whiteness. Ivy’s self-loathing, her internalised racism, and her contempt towards the poor and the working class are not easy to read. Yet, for the life of me, I could not bring myself to judge or condemn her. As the story progresses we see just how intent she is on attaining the riches and ‘class’ she so idealizes.
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts Ivy tries to fit in with her American peers. Ivy is ashamed of her Chinese immigrant parents and their low-income, finding them wanting of those ‘all-American’ qualities she has so come to yearn for. Although Ivy forges a temporary friendship of sorts with Roux Roman, a fellow outsider who shares some of her criminal inclinations. Ivy’s object of devotion is Gideon Speyer, the classic ‘golden boy’ who comes from a hideously wealthy family. Ivy longs both to be with Gideon and to have what he has.
After Ivy’s forced vacation in China, she returns to America to discover that her parents have moved so she loses touch with both Roux and Gideon. Years later, after Ivy has moved out and gone to university, Ivy comes across Gideon’s sisters and quickly inserts herself into Gideon’s life. All of a sudden her dreams seem to have been made into her reality. Not only is she socialising with the so-called upper-crust, spending her time in fancy mansions and eating at luxury restaurants but something may be happening between her and Gideon. Her social-climbing is thwarted by a ‘ghost’ from her past, someone who knows that Ivy isn’t the kind and friendly woman she is pretending to be with Gideon and his family.
Ivy shares quite a few similarities with classic anti-heroines who are determined to improve their circumstances, be it through lies or clever manipulations. Ivy also reminded me of Tom Ripley. Like him, Ivy is hungry for something more. She believes that wealth and Gideon will fill the hole within her but nothing seems able to satisfy her hunger. Gideon is not flawless, he is a rather remote and undecipherable figure. Unwilling to upset or break the idealized vision that she has of him, Ivy leaves much of his behaviour unchallenged. Of course, their dynamic had a ‘who’s using who’ angle to it that makes for some captivating reading material. Roux, for better or worst, is far less opaque. Similarly to Ivy herself, I felt rather conflicted towards him, unsure whether I should despise him or root for him. Speaking of rooting, I was rooting for Ivy. She’s vain, selfish, manipulative, and yet, I thought she was a truly fascinating character. As I said, she shares quite a lot in common with Tom Ripley so being on her side sometimes made me question my own judgement. But, given that every character in White Ivy is flawed or downright nasty, it wasn’t all that hard to be on team Ivy.
Yang’s prose is both elegant and astute. Her interrogation of class and privilege, which had some strong The Great Gatsby vibes (especially in contrasting old vs new money), is both unsparing and sophisticated. The world she portrays is as glamorous as it is terrible. Those who have always had money are disconnected from the everyday difficulties and realities experienced by those like Ivy, while those who do not but want to have that glittery lifestyle are almost blindsided by their wants.
I wish the ending could have been different as I found myself wanting more closure from the story and some of the characters. I also probably would have preferred it if Roux hadn’t been Romanian. Hear me out, I come from a country with a strong anti-Romanian attitude so I am quite susceptible when it comes to how Romanian characters are presented (and making them criminals and/or violent risks fuelling already existing harmful stereotypes).
White Ivy is a riveting debut novel. Ivy was a fascinating character, Yang’s prose is truly phenomenal, and the suspense is something else. Yang has spun an exceptional tale about love, obsession, lies, and betrayals. If you don’t mind reading about alienated characters whose moral compass is more than a little off, well look no further.
my rating: ★★★★½