White Ivy is a debut novel by Susie Yang, who was born in China, lives in the UK and has, after a PhD and launching a tech start-up in the US, turned her hand to writing. Multi-talented doesn’t appear to cover it. At first glance White Ivy feels like a fairly typical novel of the American immigrant experience and I wondered how much of Yang’s personal experience informed it. But let’s just say… I hope not much.
Ivy Lin was born in Chongqing and raised near Boston. The first part of the book introduces us to Ivy and her family and it hits many of the beats you might expect if this were a stereotypical immigrant story – a hard-driving mother Nan (yes, as in ‘male’) who is prone to beating Ivy (“that was the Chinese way; corporal punishment followed by an excess of kindness”); an enterprising grandmother Meifeng, a troubled younger brother Austin. Ivy feels the disconnect of being a migrant and the discomfort of teenage life (“Ivy grew like a wayward branch. Planted to the same root as her family but reaching for something beyond their grasp”). She has a crush on the privileged, popular, unattainable Gideon Speyer and a spiky friendship with neighbourhood boy Roux Roman. Roux also knows about Ivy’s bad habit: she steals. She also lies – a lot.
The stealing is a good character choice for the young Ivy. It’s wrong but not wicked; it’s quite easy to sympathise as we follow how she ends up becoming a shoplifter. We’re complicit in what she does. It plays upon her worst characteristics – being sly (she exploits how young she looks to get away with it) and secretive – and it’s deeply rooted in her identity (“her personality had formed into crooked shapes around the hard structure of her Chinese upbringing”). As the book progresses Ivy remains sympathetic in many ways even though, well, she’s not a very nice person.
The plot really kicks in some years later when Ivy (now a teacher and failing her legal exams) is reacquainted with Gideon, and finds Gideon’s sister is romantically involved with the now wealthy Roux (who believes that Asian women shouldn’t be allowed near fine cars). Ivy and Gideon get engaged, necessitating the two families to meet in a cringing Thanksgiving set-piece, while Ivy and Roux conduct an intense affair.
And then… and then I would reveal some serious spoilers. Because right near the end, in a wild tonal shift, Ivy does something that makes the shoplifting seem like a picnic. And it becomes a taut thriller before another wild tonal shift in which this act is completely forgotten, and another twist in the romantic narrative leads to a resolution. It’s a really, really bold narrative choice that genuinely left me shocked, perplexed, a little annoyed but grinning at the audacity of both Ivy and Susie Yang. I realised that Ivy had taken me in, just like she takes in the other characters, and I was left with a relatively rare feeling – I just wanted to turn back and start the book again to see what I’d missed and to see how Yang did it. It’s a really impressive first novel.
I really liked White Ivy. It felt patchy at times but I really admired what an unorthodox book it is, particularly as first impressions were very deceiving. I had no idea where it was going. The characters are memorable and well-drawn (there’s a large cast of characters, none of whom are insignificant). Some of Yang’s descriptions made me laugh out loud – the ‘face like boiled crabmeat’; ‘she looked as firm and new as a poached egg’. The writing is acerbic and sometimes bitingly funny – like when the ‘other’ Asian loner, rich chubby Una, returns from Korea thin and casts Ivy off (like Una, Ivy is also sent to China when Nan discovers her stealing, lying and going to parties with boys.)
And I liked Ivy herself, even if I knew I shouldn’t – something that several of the book’s characters feel too. She’s complex but totally coherent – playing cheap games of sexual conquest, lying and stealing, while hiding her true motivations behind elaborate rituals. She is melancholy and manipulative; but also damaged and unsuspectingly dangerous. She is bad, but not evil. I think.
Ivy sometimes felt she was two different people – the king, generous, moral citizen she tried to be with Gideon, and her unsatisfied, practical, opportunistic self. She would have given anything to be like Gideon naturally – to be good – but she was not good. She was jealous, petty, vengeful; experience had taught her to hide these characteristics behind a veneer of sweetness and humility
I also liked how unexpectedly Susie Yang was able to pull things together in revealing insights into the immigrant experience despite this rollercoaster plot. It’s not just that Ivy is bullied and then embarrassed by her parents, or that she feels inadequate compared to wealthy white Gideon and his family. As well as her Chinese cousins Ivy encounters other characters who give breadth to the migrant story – Kevin, the boy her mother tries to set her up with who becomes a doctor; Liana, the glamorous wife with an older white husband who flaunts her Chineseness ‘in a qipao with a slit up the thigh’ rather than hiding it under the tablecloth. Ivy is thoughtful about each of these, meaning that while the central story is hers we get a much richer representation of experience. I would have liked more of Ivy’s brother Austin – it felt like there was a story arc missing from him, who was set up as an interestingly pitiable character.
Towards the end Yang alludes to Zhuangzi’s frog in the well, and it allows Ivy to understand not just her own experience but also her mother’s, and to see how similar they are. She doesn’t even notice as her father becomes a successful businessman. As with many people growing up, Ivy does not appreciate her parents’ stories until she too is an adult, and dwells on the counterfactuals bubbling under any migrant story: what would my life be like, what would I be like, if my parents had stayed? The final plot twist leaves her reflective, with a ‘wonderful tranquillity’, and a deep and slightly twisted appreciation of her family.
The whole book might be infused with sharp teeth and a “stoic cynicism, the preferred armour of millions of Chinese immigrants”, but somehow, I found that a really strangely uplifting note to end on.