book review

White Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy: Amazon.co.uk: 9781982100599: Books

Publisher: Headline

Pub date: 7 Jan 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ivy Lin, a Chinese immigrant growing up in a low-income apartment complex outside Boston, is desperate to assimilate with her American peers. Her parents disapprove, berating her for her mediocre grades and what they see as her lazy, entitled attitude. But Ivy has a secret weapon, her grandmother Meifeng, from whom she learns to shoplift to get the things she needs to fit in.

Ivy develops a taste for winning and for wealth. As an adult, she reconnects with the blond-haired golden boy of a prominent political family, and thinks it’s fate. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the almost-perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists, and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story – as well as a dark glimpse at what can happen when we yearn for success at any cost.

Blurb

White Ivy is a coming-of-age story about Ivy Ling, a girl who moved to America from China when she was four. The main thing to know about Ivy is that she wants – the whole book and her character is defined by wanting for things: to assimilate, to fit in, to be rich, to have power, to have ‘peace’, as she calls it.

I found this novel incredibly compelling. The character of Ivy is unlikeable in many ways, but I think she is realistic and I think a lot of people will see a bit of themselves in her. Maybe not to the extreme of Ivy, who is manipulative and opportunistic at almost every opportunity – but I think the way that she wants things to such a strong degree is very relatable. As a child, Ivy wants to fit in with all of the rich white children at school – she feels ashamed of her more humble upbringing and at the ways that her family is different from other peoples’. Susie Yang creates a brilliant and tense atmosphere, and you truly feel the otherness that Ivy feels in her life. It makes all of the feelings of shame and humiliation tauter, and the negatives in her character more understandable, more forgivable.

My favourite part of the novel was Ivy’s relationship with her mother and grandmother. They are complicated, and she often clashes with Nan (her mum) and Meifeng (her grandmother), but I loved learning more about them and the choices that they made in their lives. As Ivy learns more about them too, you see that they are more alike than she’s ever thought. As Ivy’s relationship with Gideon is mostly born out of a want for more in life, her connections with her family are really the backbone of the novel.

I’ve seen this book described as a thriller, and I can see why (it definitely takes some twists and turns) but it is more slow burn than you would expect. It is more character-driven and a coming-of-age story, with thriller elements interspersed. I would say I found the final twist predictable, but after I had guessed what was going to happen, I was very invested and spent a lot of the time with my head metaphorically in my hands, thinking: no, Ivy, no!

Roux was a much more interesting character than Gideon for me (and I think he’s meant to be!), and I really liked their dynamic – he was the only one that really saw Ivy for who she was, and he liked her anyway. Ivy says that what she really wants in life is peace – the peace knowing she’s reached the top, the peace knowing that you have ‘something no one could take away from you’. This is linked of course to the fact that she was a Chinese immigrant from a lower income family, that she went to school surrounding my white and wealthy people – Ivy has never felt secure, has never felt admired, has never felt like she is top of the pile. So she dedicates her life to reaching the top and achieving peace – and really, how can you blame her for wanting that?

Roux, from a similar background as Ivy, says the most important thing is leverage. She dismisses this is ‘unused power’, as not important – but she finds by the end of the novel that Roux is right, and leverage is how she will achieve peace.

This is a compelling and tense novel, full of sharp storytelling, and I really enjoyed it! I thought the ending was perfect, and exactly what Ivy deserved – I was wondering how the story could possibly be wrapped up, but the author did a very good job of it. This was a brilliant debut, and I will absolutely want to see what Susie Yang does next.

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