White Ivy is a novel about identity, but Susie Yang stakes out a rather singular identity for the protagonist of her debut novel: “Ivy Lin was a thief,” the book begins.
Ivy steals a great many things in the course of her Chinese-born immigrant coming-of-age-in-America story, and the toys and trinkets she lifts from stores and yard sale as a child, under the careful tutelage of her grandmother, are just training tools. As she grows up, Ivy begins to understand that what she really wants to pilfer is a place in old-moneyed WASP society. As Yang also says at the beginning, no one ever suspected that this demure and nondescript girl was a thief, “and that made her reckless.” And her reckless, even feckless, pursuit of status is what makes Ivy Lin an anti-hero destined to live on as one of the more chilling literary characters of a year that has had no shortage of chilling figures in real life.
This anti-hero makes up in covetousness what she lacks in talent, intellect, passion, drive, charm, social skills, or any qualities that would help her earn what we think of in this country as a rightful place based on ability and hard work. There are many reasons that America’s obsession with being an ostensible meritocracy is itself utterly unfair: why should anyone be left behind just because they aren’t a superstar? But that’s a debate for another day and another book. In this book, Yang has made Ivy intentionally unlikeable by letting her fall back on the one surefire outlet available to covetous women throughout history: marrying up.
There are two men whom Ivy first meets as a child growing up in the scrappy fictitious town of Fox Hill, Massachusetts, and, improbable though it may be, encounters again when she’s in her twenties and living in Boston.
The aptly-named Gideon Speyer is the boy who represents all to which Ivy aspires. He’s her classmate at the tony Grove Prep School, which the young Ivy is able to attend for a while because her father is a tech specialist there. She sees Gideon as “a certain type of clean-cut, all-American boy, hitherto unknown to her; the type of boy who attended Sunday school and plucked daisies for his mother on Mother’s Day.” His father is a state senator, his whole family displays a kind of honor that comes with a secure place in the world. Gideon won’t so much as slip out of a fast food joint with a soda he hasn’t paid for. And the Speyers own a summer cottage, a concept heretofore unfamiliar to Ivy.
She might end up with Gideon or she might end up with bad-boy Roux Roman, her neighbor in Fox Hill, the boy who knows about her thieving habit and extracts his own sense of ownership from the secrets they share. In her teens, she creeps over to Roux’s apartment one night after a fight with her mother—and thinks to herself that there are few things “more lowly, more sordid” than losing your virginity to spite your mother. When Roux reappears later, he has become very rich through a dubious business, and as an authorial voice pokes in to warn, he sees Ivy as “a prize he believed he’d duly paid for and belonged to him.”
But what Roux has to give Ivy is not so much a lure as something resembling an addiction to a seedy side of life where S&M reigns—and that’s what makes Ivy a far more disturbing character than she’d be if she were just a run-of-the-mill social climber.
The title and the Chinese proverb that opens the story —“The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white”—implying as they do that Ivy is trying to assimilate into what we used to call the American melting pot rather than honor her parents and the traditions they’ve brought with them, have, according to some of the reviews on Amazon, caused a certain amount of offense. But you can also read White Ivy with a more cavalier sense of whiteness as an antediluvian metaphor. Who wants a culture in which a thousand flavors assimilate into something diluted with a cloying overtone of vanilla anyway? On the other hand, there is always rich literary ground to be mined when a writer takes on the “gorgeous mosaic,” to borrow a phrase from the late David Dinkins, of psychological baggage that each culture brings to these shores.
It’s easy to see Ivy on some rung of the Western pantheon of criminally ambitious anti-heroes that includes Becky Sharp, Jay Gatsby, Tom Ripley, and Clyde Griffiths of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. But considering the rising sales of penthouses and designer goods in the world’s second-largest economy, she could just as easily have been a social climber in China. She does, in fact, have her first taste of excessive wealth when her parents punish her by sending her back to China to visit relatives, some of whom have been mega-successful. As it turns out, however, the return is a twist in the plot that gives Ivy’s mother, Nan, and her father, Shen, time to deceive her by leaving her beloved Massachusetts and moving to a fictitious New Jersey town that will be the setting for some very fluid twists and turns in the concept of upward mobility.
Yes, Ivy’s parents have no compunction about deceiving her. If there’s anything about Ivy that earns the reader’s sympathy it’s her life as a victim of semi-archetypal “tiger parents.” They push their children to be doctors or lawyers even if they show no obvious talent and believe having fun is as waste of time. But that’s where the archetype ends; peer below the surface and what lurks there are a father who doesn’t express love well and a mother who is mostly a cold-blooded monster, thanks to their own childhoods in rural China when it was still ruled by Mao.
The consummate experiment in building a utopian communal society backfired so spectacularly that its effects on the human psyche have been continuous fertile ground for a couple of generations of Chinese novelists, including Ha Jin, Mo Yan, Anchee Min and others too numerous to name. Nan learned how to survive in Maoist China by betraying others and living with alternate realities. The story Ivy hears is that Nan, in her youth, loved a handsome boy whose family was prosperous at a time when to have money was to be an enemy of the revolution—and so the boy ended up in a labor camp where he was beaten to death by another boy for stealing his ration of sweet potatoes. Nan married Shen not for love, but because he studied English and won Nan by promising to take her to America.
Ivy imagines her mother’s mean streak might come from still grieving for the boy she loved. Or maybe there’s more to the story. What is certainly true is that Ivy is an abused child, subject to frequent beatings followed by a few days of concessions. “If the beating was particularly vicious,” Yang writes, “Nan might even cook Ivy’s favorite dishes and allow her to watch television before starting her homework.” What also becomes clear is that when Ivy is with Roux, she’s acting out an unconscious legacy. This is where Yang’s prose most excels; in capturing what a previous generation has implanted upon the id of their children, creating a soft-spoken, fashionably coiffed monster baby who walks among us, carrying rage and self-loathing she doesn’t even know is there
Ivy herself wonders if the she-devil can contain herself and fit in with the Speyer family. So does the reader, and here is where Yang’s debut novel, so astute in its appraisal of how Chinese political trauma can destroy the soul, feels a bit dismissive of what makes New England WASPs tick beneath the shabby-chic, cocktail-swilling, clam-baking surface.
Still, Yang is getting at something through the rose-colored lens that makes Ivy’s perspective of the Speyers unreliable. Ivy sees their beach house—a house with a name, Finn Oaks—as a place where tradition is everything. The mantel contains photos going all the way back to the great grandparents, and even the ceiling planks and curtains are ancient, the piano badly out of tune. The roof leaks and Gideon’s mother cheerfully declares “we haven’t gotten around to repairs.” It takes ages, but eventually it dawns on Ivy that some old money families don’t actually have a lot of money left.
What’s more troubling for Ivy—or should trouble her more than it does—is Gideon’s frequently aloof manner and frequent reluctance to spend the night with her. I thought he’s just not that into her, or maybe he’s in the closet—but it was a suspenseful ride just because when Ivy attributed his behavior to WASP reserve, there weren’t enough objective cues to provide assurance that this was coming from Ivy’s naivety rather than authorial judgement.
Well, stay for the finale, because it turns out that Yang definitely wrote this with a plan. She has a zinger for Ivy, a revelation that will raise the anti-hero’s self-awareness so that she at least knows she’s staking her happiness to a code of silence. That’s a trait that runs through many cultures, and a reason to pity the children Ivy might have someday.
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