Dec 30 2020

White Ivy by Susie Yang

I had a very Lucille Bluth moment at the end, reading the final sentence and saying aloud, “Good for her!” even as I wished I had a martini in hand. Whether to celebrate or to sedate with is a good question, tho. The weird thing is that while I was cheering her on, I didn’t even like our titular Ivy, who’s lazy and obsessed with superficialities. She’s not particularly clever or moral, and her goal in life is to marry into a “good” WASP family so she won’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to ever again. Or so she thinks, after a fashion: Ivy’s thoughts tend to be muddled as she’s not the clearest thinker. What Ivy is really chasing is privilege, and in America, she knows that the ultimate privilege is to be from a moneyed and pedigreed white East Coast family. Nothing will stop her from achieving her dreams, not love, not even the promise of wild wealth. Riches, Ivy instinctually knows, are transient but cachet is forever.

White Ivy starts out as a fairly typical Chinese immigrant story (tho don’t read the blurbs, they’re weirdly misleading.) Ivy Lin is raised by her grandmother Meifeng in China while her parents establish themselves in Massachusetts. When she makes her way over at age 5, she hates it. Her parents are strict, impatient strangers and everything is new and terrifying. Things get a little better when Meifeng joins them in America, tho she’s also the one who teaches Ivy how to steal, mostly small items from thrift stores and garage sales, in an interesting commentary on property and valuations. As Ivy grows older, she develops a crush on golden boy Gideon Speyer, a classmate at the tony private school her parents enrolled her in. Before anything can actually happen between them tho, her parents move the family to New Jersey. Even tho Ivy eventually goes to college back near Boston, she’s already working as a first-grade teacher when her path crosses Gideon’s once more. Their courtship is a whirlwind, and soon Ivy is on the precipice of getting everything she’s ever wanted. But a series of bad decisions will force her to do the unthinkable and jeopardize everything she’s sacrificed so much of herself to attain.

I hesitated to say there that she’d worked hard vs sacrificed via lopping off or stifling parts of herself, as Ivy’s life throughout the book is less about mindful forward motion than it is a series of impulsive decisions and paralyzing dread. I actually had a lot of sympathy for her, and particularly for her incoherence any time someone asked her what she wanted to be. Our society puts far too much store by ambition, as if that’s an adequate panacea for the alienation from self that’s all too common for workers in a capitalist system (why yes, this is a bit of a Marxist review. As with most philosophers, Old Karl wasn’t all wrong.) Ivy’s upbringing had also done so much to squash what she wanted in favor of what her parents might think acceptable, so I totally understood where proactive choices felt so far outside her capabilities. Honestly, that probably spurred some of her worst choices, because she’d never been taught to carefully consider consequences on her own, or even that she was allowed to not choose between two options. I even sympathized with her efforts at self-effacement, especially when trying to fit in with Gideon’s friends, and her dull rage at having to diminish herself. She stoops to conquer indeed.

I wonder whether my easy understanding of Ivy was part of the reason I found this book to be oddly predictable. There isn’t anything subtle about Susie Yang’s plotting, tho I did assume that Gideon’s proclivities went in a different direction. I did enjoy the greater metaphor of the piece as it pertained to American privilege, and sincerely hope no one was rooting for Ivy to end up with the other point of the “love triangle” whose abuse would just have escalated, imo. While I certainly don’t agree with Ivy’s methods or even her aims, I can see and sympathize with how insecurity propels her, even as I wished that she was motivated more by “freedom to” than “freedom from.” In many ways, this book reminded me a lot of Jessica Knoll’s excellent Luckiest Girl Alive, tho the heroine of LGA actually follows that more satisfying freedom from-to story arc.

Some of the best scenes in WI come from Ivy discovering the lie of things she thought immutable about her family, based on what they’d told and shown her about each other and themselves. The real tale of Nan’s boyfriend was, to me, wryly humorous at a remove, tho it’s certainly full of violence and just plain awfulness. Ivy’s summer in China was really nicely done, contrasting her rich and poor relations while encompassing the multiplicity of Asian experiences. Most of all, I could relate to Ivy’s surprise at finding out her parents had, indeed, become wealthy, and very much enjoyed how she put her foot down with them regarding poor Austin. I also thought everything about the wedding planning to be painfully hilarious, especially Poppy’s insistence on incorporating Ivy’s culture into the proceedings and how Ivy’s family reacts to that. “Culture” isn’t something to be trotted out for extravagant displays, especially when one’s everyday life barely incorporates it, and I like that Ms Yang makes note of the overbearing white savior assumption otherwise.

Again, this is one of those books I don’t remember exactly why I picked up, but I am glad I read it. It’s a bit tiresome, tho, to read descriptions of it as “exploding the model minority myth” or “coming of age” or even as a “love triangle.” Ivy is a complicated, grown ass woman who makes bad choices. It’s nice that she’s Asian and that her experiences as an Asian person are so well rendered here, but I find it both disingenuous and slightly condescending to act as if this chronicle of her experiences is either a herald of racial liberation or, worse, something new in the annals of “serious” fiction. Maybe it’s because I just recently spent so much time with the intelligent, cunning Baru Cormorant, another character of color who denies who she is in order to grasp the power she needs. Ivy is an engrossing protagonist with an interesting, thought-provoking story. It’s awesome that she’s Asian, but the story would have worked had she been from any other impoverished, under-privileged background. Acting as if her behavior is somehow more out of character for an Asian person than any other minority in America speaks to a readership that doesn’t know very many Asian people, much less read anything with Asian protagonists in it. Even the wildly successful The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, published over 30 years ago, featured a shit ton of different Chinese women and experiences, all far from being model anything — I’m genuinely horrified that people think that Asian representation in American literature since then has been so one-note as to render WI some truly new and original thing. I imagine these are the same kind of dilettantes who fell all over Ian McEwan’s execrable attempt to “slum it” in sci-fi tho. Sometimes, I wonder about what books these “serious critics” have been reading. Certainly not enough books!

Anyway, ignore the blurbs and get ready to enjoy the twisty tale of a Chinese-American immigrant who’s ready to savagely social climb her way to permanent security.

White Ivy by Susie Yang was published September 8th, 2020 by Simon & Schuster and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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