“A story where women – specifically non-white women – scam republican white men in any capacity should become a bestselling genre.”
I think everyone can remember the iconic moment that Marie Kondo – queen of organisation – delightfully stated that she ‘loved mess’. A scene that inevitably went on to be a meme, captioned with messy drama and gossip. That was me for the entirety of reading White Ivy by Susie Yang, in which Ivy Lin – eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants – climbs her way through the American social/wealth ladder through manipulation and deception. Honestly? Inject it.
A story where women – specifically non-white women – scam republican white men in any capacity should become a bestselling genre. The satisfaction and elation that it can elicit from me is borderline unhinged. However, White Ivy doesn’t stop there, in fact you’ve barely scratched the surface. Beneath it brims a plethora of internalised issues with Ivy; her self-hate for her Asianness, her strangled relationship with her parents and the pressure to provide for them, her simultaneous hate for how much she idolises the wealth she strives for, and the restrictions in which women can strive for better in their own lives.
Ivy was born in a small village in China, left in the care of her grandmother, Meifeng, while her parents immigrated to the States. For five years Ivy is raised by Meifeng. In this time, living in poverty, Ivy learns the ways of shoplifting by her grandmother. It is the first of many lessons she will teach her in order to build resilience to her conditions and an adaptability that will ensure survival. Skills that evolve and last throughout Ivy’s life.
A common and recurring theme within the novel is that these traits are present in all women in the Lin family. Unsurprisingly, despite Ivy’s father Shen appearing to be the one to grant them a better life in America, it was actually due to his wife Nan, whom had the ability to manipulate him to do so in the first place. The women of the Lin family have come from a background that has hardened them, which can often strain Nan’s relationship with Ivy. This is especially prevalent throughout her teenage years.
Yang expertly teeters the edge of Ivy’s conflicting emotions with her racial identity and the suffocating pressures to assimilate into whiteness. The reader is always conscious of the causes; brought to life by the enrollment of Ivy into a private school, in which she attends for free due to her father working as a computer technician there.
Ivy lays eyes on the white, blonde haired Gideon Speyer, son of a senator and popular at school. Her intense crush represents everything Ivy has ever wanted; financial comfort, a power and ownership that allows you to navigate the world without a single critical thought, and of course, classical – and generic – good American looks.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing. Not a white man, least of all someone called Gideon. It’s embarrassing, love. However, not without its relatability. I remember the first time I saw a blonde-haired blue-eyed boy at school, the type of blue that was almost uncomfortable to look at, and being so taken with the idea of him that I moved recklessly. I always remember when that same boy turned around told me he didn’t like me in that Year 6 class. I’ll lay awake at night in embarrassment forever.
“Ivy utilises her beauty, and her natural disposition to silence to her advantage. It comes in handy when she navigates white spaces. No one ever assumes the worst of her, nor is she ever suspected of any ill will or intent.”
Her infatuation with Gideon goes beyond school, even long after her family moves them out of Massachusetts and into New Jersey – where Nan hopes being in a Chinese community will inspire Ivy to study harder to save her failing grades. Sadly, the damage is done.
The constant thought I had prior to that moment was, if she had grown up in an Asian-American environment, would her perception of herself and her position in the world have been different? Who knows. There is an undercurrent of melancholy at this fact, that the implications of racism and white assimilation have warped Ivy’s perception of the world so heavily that even as she grows older, she will be unable to let go of it.
Her only friend, and second love interest, Roux Roman – yes, another white man – is the only one who has ever appeared to love her for who she is. Including her habits of stealing and lying. Roux and Ivy are two sides of the same coin, and regardless of whatever Ivy may feel for him, she will never reciprocate.
Ivy is faced with a mirror when she looks as Roux, and the volatile reflection is a potential fate she fights tooth and nail to never fall into. Yang highlights the stark contrast in these two men, a metaphor for the two constricting futures that Ivy can have for a woman in her position.
Ivy utilises her beauty, and her natural disposition to silence to her advantage. It comes in handy when she navigates white spaces. Nobody ever assumes the worst of her, nor is she ever suspected of any ill will or intent. It aids her to infiltrate the social circles that Gideon is in when they meet years later, at the age of 27. It aids her when Gideon asks her out, and it aids her when she murders someone.
YES! Murder. Cue the meme of the guy screaming in joy when he watches a fire blaze.
“It’s difficult to come away disliking anyone in White Ivy, because Yang gives readers just enough to understand that the system that has been built hinders most people in some way. Unless you are straight, rich and white.”
It’s a climax that felt inevitable as the decades of hidden issues and Ivy’s complexities began to surface, as her facade occasionally slipped, and her financial debt climbed. Seldom am I desperate for a character to get away with the horrible things they’ve done, but I’m biased with Ivy.
White Ivy instils a feeling that Ivy earned her comfort, especially once you’ve reached the end of her mother, and grandmother’s, stories. It is a bittersweet satisfaction, one that couldn’t be earned any other way because the lie that is the American Dream is not built for them.
Each character is nuanced, buckling under the pressure to achieve their own idea of the American Dream. Yang is expertly imperceptible about this, as it flies by the vision and musings of Ivy; hinting at it just enough that you’re invited to look closer and over-analyse, agonising over whether these hints are simply all in your head, or if they are gradually building to whatever assumption you have made.
Even Gideon, the softly spoken wet wipe, is given the grace of a layered and marginally sympathetic motivation for his choices. It’s difficult to come away disliking anyone in White Ivy, because Yang gives readers just enough to understand that the system that has been built hinders most people in some way. Unless you are straight, rich and white.
Meifeng is influential throughout all of this, having laid the foundation of Ivy’s resolve from a young age. Her Chinese sayings – often translated – frequent the pages and Ivy’s memories, once disregarded by Ivy only for her to realise the undenying truth of them. One that consistently sticks to Ivy, and the reader, long after the last page as you are constantly reminded her successes are not just her own: “one successful marriage feeds three generations.”
It’s the type of lasting effect that leaves you gagging for more, wide awake at 3am, needing somebody to inhale it the same way I inhale cheesecake.
Soraya Bouazzaoui is Aurelia’s Literal Hotties columnist which whilst never giving too much away, focuses on reviews and recommendations of titles by women of colour, both fiction and non-fiction. @halalltakeaway
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