A contemporary, Chinese American spin on Talented Mr Ripley, White Ivy explores themes of racism (overt and internalized), family, immigration, and the struggle women (particularly women of colour) face when making it in a man’s world. Main character Ivy Lin is a fantastic anti-heroine — complex, cunning, and charismatic — with a deep-rooted vulnerability that makes you root for her. I was completely captivated by Ivy’s story, full of scheming and plotting, all of which is centred around her very human need for love, belonging, and purpose. I absolutely loved this book, and highly recommend it for anyone.
Ivy Lin grows up a super successful thief. She takes advantage of her youthful, innocent appearance (hell yeah! to turning racist Asian stereotypes to one’s advantage). She is also taught these skills by her Chinese immigrant grandmother, who later rather hypocritically scolds Ivy for continuing to steal long after the grandmother no longer needs her services as an accomplice. Here again is a note that hits home: Ivy’s grandmother argues that it’s okay for her to steal, because she’s an immigrant from an impoverished village in China who needs to survive, whereas Ivy is an American-born citizen, with all the privileges and access to American opportunities implied by that status. Yes, it’s a self-serving double standard, but it also feels real, and highlights some very real expectations immigrant families can have for their American children. Because, after all, the chance for these American children to have a better life, and not have to struggle or compromise as their immigrant parents or grandparents did, is part of the entire point of leaving one’s home country in the first place.
Much of Ivy’s scheming centers around her rich, handsome, white classmate Gideon Speyer. Ivy crushes on Gideon as a child, and when she runs into Gideon’s sister Sylvia in adulthood, Ivy grabs the opportunity to insert herself into Gideon’s world. I absolutely love how Ivy isn’t so much attracted by Gideon himself, but rather by what Gideon represents: whiteness and inherited wealth, two pillars of privilege Ivy can never herself claim.
I love how much the author integrates Ivy’s family, and their pasts, into Ivy’s story. Through this, it’s clear that Ivy’s pursuit of Gideon isn’t about attaining a romantic ideal, nor is it even just about achieving some kind of lifestyle. Rather, it’s about obtaining the perceived pinnacle of the so-called “American dream” her parents immigrated to the US to achieve. If, by proximity to Gideon, Ivy can also become a part of white, wealthy society, then she fulfills the dreams her family has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, for.
In contrast to Gideon is Ivy’s childhood friend Roux. He lives in Ivy’s neighbourhood, is raised by a single immigrant mother (Romanian), and is also a skilled thief. In short, he’s everything Ivy wants to escape becoming. When Roux re-enters Ivy’s life as an adult, and confesses his feelings for her, he puts all she’s worked for into jeopardy. Roux’s reappearance sets off a bit of a love triangle subplot, and the thriller section of the novel.
And again, I’m blown away by the intricate, interwoven layers throughout this novel. As much as Ivy wants to be part of Gideon’s world, she continues to be undeniably attracted to Roux, yet, equally undeniably, she refuses to be drawn back into the life she could have with Roux. Here, we see how much Gideon’s attraction for Ivy isn’t his wealth, but rather his social status as a wealthy WASP.
I realize I talk a lot about Ivy’s desire for Gideon’s whiteness. This is similar to a stereotypical trope that is rarely, possibly never, done well, and I’ve seen far too many novels, often by white writers, of submissive Asian women who get gooey eyed over white saviour heroes. In White Ivy, Yang successfully subverts this trope, and shows how an Asian American lens completely changes the way the trope is handled. Unlike the characters in those other novels, Ivy is the one driving the narrative, and using her proximity to whiteness to her advantage. More importantly, the narrative is, at all times, self-aware, always somehow managing to keep us within Ivy’s perspective, while at the same time, signalling to us why some of her perspective is shaped by the racism she faces in society. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Yang manages to pull it off.
Perhaps most importantly, alongside Ivy’s desire to become part of a piece of society different from her own, is the very rich story of her grandmother and mother. We initially see both figures from Ivy’s perspective, yet as the story progresses, we learn more about both women, and all they’ve done and sacrifice to get to where they are. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that White Ivy isn’t just the story of one Chinese American woman, but rather a multi-generational, matrilineal tale. While Ivy’s mother and grandmother’s stories form fairly brief flashbacks or conversations in the overall novel, the thematic thread that runs through all three of their lives is powerful. The way in which the three generations influence each other, while keeping parts of their own stories under wraps, is beautiful and moving.
White Ivy is downright brilliant, one of my favourite novels this year. It’s a compelling, fast-paced thriller. It’s also a love story, featuring a wide range of different kinds of love. It’s the kind of story you can zip through in a single afternoon, and the type of novel you can spend a full semester unpacking in a university English literature class. I loved it, and cannot recommend it enough.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.