Poison Ivy

‘White Ivy’: an “Asian-American ‘House of Mirth'”

Ivy Lin sees your model-minority assumptions, and uses them to win.

Susie Yang explodes the myth in White Ivy, her white-hot debut novel about one woman’s desperate quest for wealth and acceptance.

White Ivy

Entertainment Weekly, Lithub, Crime Reads and plenty of other publications put this book on their “most anticipated” lists for fall. The Center For Fiction longlisted it for their First Novel prize. Today’s Jenna Bush Hager tapped it for Jenna’s Book Club, and Shonda Rhimes won the adaptation rights for a Netflix miniseries.

We first meet Ivy as a child, learning to shoplift with her grandmother, Meifeng.

“No one ever suspected – and that made her reckless,” Yang writes in White Ivy. “Her features were so average and nondescript that the brain only needed a split second to develop a complete understanding of her: skinny Asian girl, quiet, overly docile around adults in uniforms. She had a way of walking, shoulders forward, chin tucked under, arms barely swinging, that rendered her invisible in the way of pigeons and janitors.”

Ivy struggles with profound insecurities. She laments her life in suburban Boston with her immigrant parents, especially compared with those of her classmates at posh Grove Preparatory Day School, where her father fixes the computers and she gets free tuition. As a teen, Ivy deploys her shoplifting skills at the big-box stores in town to acquire items her parents would never consider: lip gloss, tampons, a diary with a gold-tone lock.

Only Roux, a neighbor of modest means and a fellow rule-breaker, sees Ivy for who she really is.

Her thieving is just a warm-up. Gideon Speyer is the golden-boy classmate of Ivy’s literal dreams. Gideon has the effortless status Ivy covets, and he’s one of the few at school who’s nice to her. Years later, she’s an elementary-school teacher when she runs into Gideon’s sister, and eventually Gideon himself. The golden boy has grown into a thoughtful, kind man, and Ivy begins a calculated courting that eventually veers into crimes far beyond theft.

Susie Yang (Credit: Onur Pinar Photography).

Yang, a former tech exec who pitched White Ivy as an Asian-American House of Mirth, is intensely interested in class and wealth. Ivy dissects her rich classmates — what they wear, where they vacation, what they eat, how many houses they have. Dispatched as a teen to spend the summer in China with relatives, Ivy aspires to be like her aunt Sunrin, who blithely whips out a gold AMEX to buy clothes and souvenirs.

“Awash in the rich peripheral glow of her aunt’s money, Ivy felt she and Sunrin were alike, with the same tastes, opinions and expectations, and that Sunrin’s generosity was her own, there was hardly any difference between them all.”

Ivy equates wealth with much more than cash. Roux reappears later in the novel as an adult who’s made money, but his flashy demeanor falls beneath Ivy’s aspirations, if not her libido. For her, true wealth confers a deep sense of belonging. It’s an identity that feels perpetually out of reach.

Yang’s deft portrait of this troubled young woman is hypnotizing, from her stubborn refusal to admit vulnerability to her steely march towards her goal.

“She had long ago realized that the truth wasn’t important, it was the appearance of things that would serve her,” Ivy thinks, redoubling her plans to transform. “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.”

(Simon and Schuster, Nov. 3, 2020)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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