Having just gotten through a day on four hours of sleep with author Susie Yang to blame, I will sleepily report that her debut novel “White Ivy” has it all — it’s a coming of age story, a love triangle rich in complications of race and class, and though it offers the pleasures of a literary novel such as complex characters and interesting writing, it also has the attractions of a psychological thriller: jaw-dropping plot twists and an unpredictable ending.
Ivy Lin is an antiheroine deserving of the name, both reprehensible and sympathetic. As the first paragraph of the book tells us, “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. … Her features were so average that the brain needed only a split second to develop a complete understanding of her: skinny Asian girl … invisible in the way of pigeons and janitors.”
We readers will get to know her much better than that. Born in China, she traveled by herself at the age of 5 from the care of an indulgent grandmother to immigrant parents living outside Boston. The child-rearing approach of these cold characters was “heavy on the corporeal punishment” but so light on affection that Ivy develops a scheme to sit in her mother’s lap each Saturday when company comes over, the only time she can get away with it. By 6, she is told she is too old for lap-sitting.
The following year, her grandmother, Meifeng, arrives in the States. She finds Ivy withdrawn and fumbling, “curled up on the couch like a snail, reading cross-eyed.” Horrified, she feels it “her duty to instill in her granddaughter the two qualities necessary for survival, self-reliance and opportunism.”
Translation: cheating and stealing.
Finally, Ivy has a way to get the lip gloss, the sports bra, the diary, and the mood ring she craves.
In sixth grade, she’s offered free tuition by the fancy prep school where her father works as a computer tech, and she promptly meets the love of her life, Gideon Speyer, a clean-cut, blond-headed American boy whom she imagines attending Sunday school and plucking daisies for his mother on Mother’s Day. When this golden boy calls to invite her to a party at his house, she has to stuff her pillow in her mouth to muffle her screams of joy. Everything will be different now, she writes in her diary.
Boy, will it ever. In days, she will be sent in disgrace to China to spend the summer with relatives. When she returns, the family will have moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey. It’s going to take some doing to get Gideon Speyer back into her life, but fate does some of it for her, and soon she manages to meet the whole Speyer family and become “Giddy’s” girlfriend, officially living the life of her dreams. At least on the surface.
Yang has many more surprises left for both Ivy and the reader in this sharply observed and boldly imagined novel.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
By: Susie Yang.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $26.