“Lives are like rivers. Eventually they go where they must, not where we want them to.”
In Susie Yang’s, White Ivy, an incredible tale of identity, desire, obsession, twisted values and social climbing, Ivy Lin is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When Shen and Nan Lin come to America, they leave 2 year old Ivy behind in China with her Chinese grandmother. Ivy is 5 when she finally joins her financially struggling parents while Ivy’s grandmother Meifeng joins the family 2 years later. Ivy never really recovers from the separation from her parents and then the separation from her beloved grandmother. She experiences “a terrible loneliness that turned her permanently inward,” and becomes a “secretive child.” It’s with penny-pinching Meifeng that Ivy learns to shoplift and steal, and so her life splinters into strands– a blend of her transplanted Chinese grandmother’s advice, her parents’ ambition for her to succeed in America at all costs, and her desire to leave her Chinese roots behind.
Thanks to her father’s employment, Ivy is able to attend an elite Boston school. It’s at the prep school that she sets eyes on “a certain type of clean-cut all-American boy,” Gideon Speyer. In Gideon, “she found the central object of her aspirational life,” and from then she wants him to notice her. An invitation to a sleepover results in Ivy’s outraged parents uprooting their daughter to New Jersey but not before she manages to sleep with Roux, a Romanian immigrant, considered “poor trash” by Ivy’s family. Roux seems to be the only person on the planet who ‘gets’ the many facets to Ivy’s splintered personality, understanding that her docile, passive exterior hides some dark, transgressive behaviour.
The novel then picks up Ivy’s life when she’s in her late twenties and working as a teacher. She wasn’t an easy child to like but now, even though she’s deeply insecure, she’s gilded with certain exterior markers that make her seem like a whole person. Ivy isn’t happy. There’s a vast emptiness inside Ivy where values and identity should be. She’s unmarried and the object of her parents’ clumsy matchmaking attempts. Then, one day, Gideon steps back into her life, and Ivy, an adept shapeshifter thanks to her scrambled identity, will do whatever it takes to hang onto him. …
Soon Ivy is in the middle of Gideon’s family, seemingly accepted, even embraced, and yet his sister Sylvia and Gideon’s best friend Tom maintain a sharp disdain for Ivy. Ivy, willing to shape herself into whatever persona is necessary to be accepted, suffers insults and bad behaviour as she subsumes herself into the role of Gideon’s girlfriend. Then Sylvia’s boyfriend, Roux, now extremely successful, walks back into Ivy’s life.
White Ivy makes my Best-of Year list in its exploration of one young woman’s splintered identity and her self-destructive, twisted pursuit of the shallow, deceptive markers of success. The tale is unpredictable, tragic, and a mirror to the emptiness of Ivy’s interpretation of the American Dream. Ivy with her splintered, corrupted identity fails to see the value (or valueless) of her pursuit. Gideon’s family is considered ‘old money,’ and yet just what the family coffers hold is up for debate. Only old money can get away with a certain shabbiness, and some of the book’s intriguing scenes involve Ivy’s family (now affluent) who show up in brand new designer clothes to meet Gideon’s parents: Ted and Poppy.
Nan’s sharp eyes took in every detail–the two modest but tasteful bedrooms. the corner library, the solemn parlour with russet curtains-and made humming sounds of approval in her throat, but Meifeng would point to a table or lamp and ask abstract, one-worded adjectives, like “Old?” or “Real?” Poppy would rush to answer with a detailed explanation about the origins of each piece and Ivy or Shen would translate. “Everything is falling apart,” Meifeng said to Ivy in Chinese. “Their wealth is made of dung. Not useful even when spread.” She flicked a knob of plaster off the wall, then sniffed it.
Susie Yang’s characters form a rich tableaux of various aspects of American culture: Old money, new money (Roux) and immigrants who achieve the American Dream only to find it’s not what they expected. There’s a Chinese American human rights lawyer, Liana who holds sway over her social circle with her wobbly claim to Chinese authenticity, and Austin, Ivy’s brother who is almost completely non-functional. Overseeing the Lin family is tough old Meifeng’s pragmatic values. And then there’s Ivy–a woman so desperate to belong that she really has no idea who she is.
Ivy’s story tackles that old question of who we think we want to be vs. who we really are. Many immigrant novels deal with the subject of assimilation and while that’s true here, Ivy’s assimilation is self-destructive, transgressive and fraught with pathology. She’s willing to subsume herself into some sort of shallow, hollow role in order to be accepted, and she’s subservient to the inauthentic people in Gideon’s circle, people she doesn’t even like, in order to be accepted. As her quest darkens and narrows, it’s clear that Ivy will do whatever it takes to succeed, and the book’s stunning ending is terrifying in its implications.
Makes my Best-of-Year list