Review | White Ivy, by Susie Yang

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.

Review | Silent Music, by Kate Lord Brown

In 1960s New York, ballet teacher Tess learns that her husband Kit wants a divorce, just before their son Bobby announces he’s getting married. For the sake of their son, Tess and Kit agree to postpone the divorce until after Bobby’s marriage, but that poses a challenge, and old secrets come to light, when Bobby’s future uncle-in-law Marco starts showing an interest in Tess.

Silent Music is a quiet, lovely book. The developing relationship between Tess and Marco is sweet and tender, rather than passionate. We get hints throughout that Tess and Kit’s marriage has not been a happy one, and that Kit has been an uncaring, at times cruel, husband. So it’s heartwarming to see Tess’s confidence grow in the face of Marco’s unwavering admiration. There’s a lovely plot thread about a pair of shoes Marco designs for Tess to wear to Bobby’s wedding, and the final design turns out to be much bolder than Tess believed herself capable of wearing.

While it would have been very easy to make Marco simply a charming hero, somewhat akin to Andy Garcia’s Fernando in Mamma Mia 2, I like that the author has given him struggles of his own as well. As much as he helps Tess come out of her shell, being with Tess also gives Marco a fresh spark of life. Without giving too much away, there’s a secret he’s keeping from Tess, and the way this plot thread is treated shows how much Tess helps him live with this aspect of his life. Their love story isn’t super passionate or exciting, but rather the kind of love a couple settles into: comfortable and companionable.

From the book’s description on Goodreads, I thought there would be a lot more about Tess and Kit’s relationship in Hong Kong in 1939, and also a lot more about Tess’s career as a ballet dancer and ballet teacher. I was disappointed that this wasn’t the case. We do get a bit of history on their relationship at the beginning and towards the end of the novel, but otherwise, the story very much focuses on the weeks leading up to Bobby’s wedding.

I also ended up hating Bobby as a character. From being a loving son who was totally clueless about his parents’ marital issues, Bobby turns downright misogynistic, and outright slut-shames his mother. Kit rightly calls him out on that, and Bobby eventually changes his mind, but he was nowhere near sorry enough. I can understand that the author may have been trying to reflect social attitudes in the 60s, but I still really disliked Bobby, and downright wished his fiancee would leave him for someone better.

I also wish we’d learned more about Kit. He was a terrible husband, who married Tess for reasons other than love, and we get several hints of what those reasons are throughout the novel. But he still didn’t really seem fully fleshed out by the end. Likely, this is a case of the marketing copy being misleading — the book summary on Goodreads gave me the impression that the story would focus on Tess and Kit, and it took me a while to realize Marco was going to play a large part in this story. Still, I thought Kit’s character could have been better fleshed out.

Thanks to the author for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Crosshairs, by Catherine Hernandez

CrosshairsCoverCrosshairs is a powerful, highly relevant, gut-punch of a book. It’s technically a “dystopian”, but a lot of the subjects it tackles feel uncomfortably contemporary. Crosshairs is particularly powerful because it explores how social injustices disproportionately impact marginalized communities, in this case BIPOC LGBTQ2S+ folks.

The main character is Kay Nopuente, a Jamaican-Filipino drag queen who is forced to run when the Canadian government rounds up persons they consider “Others” to work in forced labour camps. In this world, the Canadian PM is basically a Trump twin, and the US and Canada are united in a singular philosophy that dehumanizes Others, and reduces them to means of production.

Race, sexuality, wealth, and disability are all factors in how one is classified as an Other in Crosshairs’ world, and Hernandez is very much on point in showing how much intersectionality plays a role in these determinations. Black and Brown LBTQ2S+ characters talk about how they cannot simply “pass”, because of their skin colour, whereas a chapter mentions how white gay men are back to walking along Church Street, albeit with somewhat adapted movements.

Hernandez also explores the varying degrees of Other-ness across BIPOC folks. A Black restaurant worker is immediately dismissed as an Other (we have no indication about whether or not his sexuality played a role), and some wealthy Others (we have no indication about specific identities that rendered them Other) have tried to assimilate but failed. In contrast, within the forced labour camps, some Asian women (we have no indication of particular ethnicities beyond “Asian”) are helping the military maintain control over the Others, in exchange for their children’s safety. With all three examples, perhaps most troubling is that while Hernandez didn’t go into too much specifics on these characters’ intersecting identities, many of us likely have ideas on how to fill in the blanks. Which in itself is an indication of how real and how contemporary these subjects are, despite the fictional nature of the story playing out.

Beyond Kay, we also have a full cast of characters of colour — Bahadur Talebi, a non-binary person who just wants to lay low so they can survive; Firuzeh Pasdar, a social worker who tries to help as many Others as she can until she herself is captured; Emma Singh, a Deaf woman who befriends Firuzeh; and so many more. The government’s targeted attacks on Others affects each of them in different ways, and while some don’t survive, all their stories are shown to matter. Hernandez also presents us with white allies: Liv, a woman who goes undercover in spaces of power by marrying a powerful man; and Beck, a white gay man who provides Kay and Bahadur with shelter and combat training.

This book is a compelling read, but by no means an easy one. Hernandez pulls no punches in talking about racism, homophobia, violence and all sorts of things. She does so in a respectful manner — offensive slurs are x’d out, and when describing the aftermath of a violent death driven by racism, the narration focuses on the victim’s humanity rather than the gory details — but it’s all very disquieting. There’s a fury within the narration that demands our attention, and beyond that, our action. While the details of the world in Crosshairs are fictional, it’s a reality that’s far too easy to imagine events playing out as Hernandez has outlined. In the event of a natural disaster (in this book, a flood), we know that wealth, skin colour, and so on, all play a factor in how well each of us will fare. We only need to look at how the COVID-19 situation is playing out in Toronto to see that the communities most affected by the pandemic are also the communities most likely to be labelled Others in Crosshairs.

A couple minor snags for me with this book: first is that the narrative moves between timelines, from present-day to flashbacks, often told as stories between characters sharing their experiences. I found some of the shifts confusing, and particularly with such a large cast of characters, I sometimes found myself having to think hard to remember who a character was and what their role was in the story.

Another snag for me was the cringeworthy exercises Beck, Liv, and other white allies did to embody allyship. Their reasoning was sound: their needed to unlearn an entire lifetime of white supremacy, and particularly of accepting their culpability in propagating this, despite being, by most markers, woke. But then they do this by doing movement exercises at dawn, while chanting mantras about how the world should not be all about them. Possibly, Hernandez intended this to be cringey — certainly, Kay and Bahadur are both as skeptical at first as I am.

But then this part of the story takes an earnest turn. Beck’s mom decides to try the exercises, and we see her entire, painful process of unlearning: from acting super awkward to Kay and Bahadur, to arguing that she’s a “good person” and “not at all racist”, to eventually responding with genuine empathy to a story Kay tells. And in the big march scene at the end, all the white allies perform a gesture that is basically designed to show their support without taking the spotlight away from Black and Brown folks.

As I write this, I’ve come to believe that Hernandez did intend this plot thread to be uncomfortable. As a woman of colour, the whole morning exercise routine struck me as being very performative. And even the allyship gesture at the end, while certainly done in earnest by the white characters, still felt not-enough. I give characters like Liv, Beck, and to a lesser extent, even Beck’s mom a pass, because I see how they have actually risked themselves to support Others, but the fact that they have to do a literal daily dance to make this support genuine added a sheen of performativity to their support. To me, at least.

Crosshairs invites multiple readings. It’ll likely cause some kind of discomfort for every reader, and deliberately so. And it invites us to sit with this discomfort, and reflect further on what we read.

The novel ends on a note of hope, of collection action finally being taken, of triumph laced with dread. We know enough of how the world really works to believe that the story will end happily for all the characters we’ve come to love. Yet we at least have this scene, where they are fighting back and making themselves heard. And while that can never be enough, it’s something, and it will spark something more.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.