Book: "White Ivy"
Publishing Date: November 3, 2020
Author: Susie Yang
Length: 354 pages
Susie Yang's "White Ivy" is a narrative of life as a Chinese immigrant growing up in America, a dark and tumultuous love story, a portrait of the complicated nature of family and a startling exploration of some of the most depraved aspects of human nature.
The novel centers around the life of Ivy Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States when she was five. As she ages, she longs to fit in with her classmates and begins to resent the expectations and rules of her Chinese family.
Ivy's parents enroll her in a prestigious preparatory academy, where she meets Gideon Speyer, the son of a former senator. She feels as though she belongs in this new world, with children from affluent families, and with Gideon, who she falls hopelessly in love with. It is clear to the reader that Ivy values beauty, prominence and wealth and thinks less of those who do not possess such qualities.
The novel follows Ivy through adulthood, where her obsession with wealth and status earns her the life she always wanted for herself, although her own selfishness and greed threaten to shatter this new, seemingly perfect reality.
Readers who need a likable main character to enjoy a book should be wary of "White Ivy." Ivy Lin is vain, self-serving, dishonest and sometimes cruel, and Yang does not hesitate to make the reader aware of these flaws. In fact, she uses Ivy's dark nature to propel the plot and allow for the riveting and creative twists and turns throughout the novel.
Despite her flaws and often startling actions, the reader still feels some level of sympathy for Ivy which allows her to maintain a semblance of relatability. This is an impressive feat on Yang's part. It is challenging to create a protagonist who is unlikeable, yet just likable enough to hold the audience's attention.
Yang is able to achieve a similar kind of balance in all aspects of her novel. For instance, her descriptions and imagery are vivid and artful, yet her language is neat and precise; every word serves a purpose. Her ability to develop settings into places and atmospheres that feel genuine is remarkable, yet she is equally successful in creating characters that have distinct gestures and expressions that can be perfectly imagined in the mind's eye.
With all of the novel's drama and sudden plot twists, it would have been easy for the plot to feel melodramatic or lose its resemblance of reality. Yang masterfully avoids this, and the plot twists are effective because, for the most part, they seem perfectly plausible within the context of the story.
The end scene is the closest the novel gets to betraying this. It it is a brilliant demonstration of Ivy's unwavering lust for success and wealth but can be interpreted too as a failed attempt at one final shock to rattle the audience. However, if the reader views Ivy as an unreliable narrator during this scene (and there are plenty of reasons to do so) the events of the last few pages still demonstrate the state of Ivy's twisted mind and the nature of her character.
The most successful and endearing parts of the novel's plot come not from the high points of drama or suspense but instead in Yang's raw and tender portrayal of the human experience.
Ivy's relationship with her family matures and strengthens over the course of the novel in a way that feels natural and honest, and the novel's supporting characters, such as Ivy's younger brother and her roommate Andrea, are given personalities and experiences that allow Yang to address important issues such as mental illness. They also help the reader reassess what it means to be a sister, a friend or a daughter, and how Ivy fails and succeeds in these roles.
Readers of all genres will appreciate this insight into the flawed relationships and personalities of humans and Yang's technical skill, rich imagination and ability to tell a story that will have readers talking about its plot and characters for days after they turn the final page.