Book Review: White Ivy | 20 Books of Summer
White Ivy will be published on November 3rd, 2020 by Simon & Schuster as a literary mystery/thriller. I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
Content Warning: racism and microaggressions regarding race and social class, mental health stigmas (anxiety, depression, taking prescribed medications), sex, shoplifting and theft, domestic violence.
Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her.
Raised outside of Boston, Ivy’s immigrant grandmother relies on Ivy’s mild appearance for cover as she teaches her granddaughter how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, and her dream instantly evaporates.
Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when Ivy bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.
Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners, and weekend getaways to the cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.
Filled with surprising twists and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story, as well as a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost.
White Ivy is Susie Yang’s debut novel, although for nearly the entire book that fact is not obvious. Her writing style feels effortless, each detail of the narrative feels important, and the story certainly has that satisfying “can’t put down” factor. Even so, the last quarter of the book did feel rushed, and left this reader slightly disappointed.
The synopsis is an accurate representation of the events in the book, although it does not quite tell the whole story (thankfully, appropriately). Susie Yang chose to section the narrative into early stages and important moments of the life of the main character – Ivy. We see her in her teen years, as she tries to navigate the pressures and expectations of her immigrant grandmother and parents, while trying to fit in among the popular kids at her high school.
Race and social class are the main topics at play here; both effect Ivy deeply. She faces pressure and consequences from her parents to both excel in her predominantly white school as a teenager and adhere to the expectations of finding a husband and starting a family as a young adult (constantly being reminded of the life path of her Chinese cousins, family friends, and her parents). The latter also comes at a time when she begins a relationship with an old classmate, who benefits from generational wealth and ignorance/avoidance around other social class lifestyles. Microaggressions towards Ivy and her family, as well as accusations and insecurity about her family’s financial history very clearly influence her growth, or lack of it.
Ivy’s angst, anger, hope, and fears can be felt through the pages, and while her obligatory (per her parents) trip to China could not come at a worse time in Ivy’s eyes, it gave the narrative a change it needed. Susie Yang put it in just the right spot to give the plot a boost and offer a scenario that instilled a want for growth in her main character; a great setup to the next section of the book, where we see Ivy as a young adult.
In addition to seamlessly moving the narrative along, Susie Yang gives such believable life to the characters. There are nearly a dozen individuals that make appearances along the way, and they are all distinguishable from each other. When an author can make even the most dull characters feel as interesting as the most reckless, it’s a recipe for satisfaction. Especially when there isn’t really a likable character to be found, from the protagonist to the most minor background character, it’s important to still feel connected by way of description and fully fleshing out personalities. Susie Yang pulls it off.
What isn’t quite pulled off, and what leaves the reader with a slight feeling of mediocrity by the end, is the culmination of the plot. White Ivy is labeled (as of this writing) as both literary fiction and a mystery thriller, which in a way is appropriate. The first half is certainly literary, and the second half (or at least the last quarter) is thrilling in a mystery genre sense. Unfortunately the two did not join forces throughout the course of the story, and instead were separated out which makes the ending feel hurried and haphazard. A neat and tidy ending is not really expected based on the course of the characters’ lives, but until the end the pieces of the messed up puzzle were satisfactorily put together. There are a couple of events that, in a “typical” thriller or mystery would feel wild and impossibly exciting, whereas here they have an element of realness and feel like the “appropriate” next step – mostly due to Susie Yang’s enthralling writing style. Nonetheless, some of the details and final events felt like they were thrown in at the last minute to up the thrill, when it would have been more thrilling, and even maybe more realistic, to leave the conclusion a bit more open-ended.
Despite this, however, White Ivy is still a captivating, unique, and beautifully written debut novel offering perspective, reflection, and shock value. It will be exciting to see where Susie Yang goes from here.