What did I just read? What even is this?! And I mean that in the best way.
White Ivy by Susie Yang is kind of a thriller, with theft, dark secrets, extortion, and murder. But it’s also kind of a manners novel, commenting on class and new money and old money. And it’s kind of a parody of the immigrant narrative, too, with a Chinese-American Undine Spragg or Lola Fabrikant character at its heart.
Young Ivy’s been explicitly taught to shoplift by her grandmother, who seems to steal not because she particularly wants something unaffordable, but to test her cleverness and get something over on others. Ivy leans into her innocent, quiet persona, and is quite a successful shoplifter. There’s an interesting twisting here of the modern-minority stereotypes and immigrant narrative, like the one found in Girl in Translation. Ivy’s also been taught, implicitly and explicitly, to want wealth. Not just money, although she definitely wants more cash, but the upscale, privileged lifestyle that comes with it. Ivy applies her training and pockets whatever she wants and needs to be a popular American teen, but her parents have other ideas.
As a teen, Ivy’s infatuated with a classmate called Gideon, who seems to have everything she wants in his rich, upscale, all-American family. As an adult, she bumps into Gideon’s sister and finds herself back in Gideon’s life. (But did she really randomly bump into Sylvia? Ivy’s shown her ruthless manipulation skills, did she make that happen too? I know why Sylvia pushes Ivy towards Gideon, but how much Ivy did have to do with it…?)
As Gideon’s girlfriend, Ivy find herself starting to live the life she imagined. Upscale brunches, tech launch parties, and travel, in a particular style. White, New England old-money is just what Ivy wanted, and seemed so out of reach before Gideon. When Gideon brings Ivy to his family’s vacation spot, she sees their Cape Cod vacation home is the old-money, consciously rundown style, found in The Paper Palace or Wild Game, and Ivy is completely aware of this. This is what she’s always wanted, and Ivy is completely aware of being the outsider in a manners novel. Even when Ivy’s family has actually become wealthy, it’s through unglamorous long hours and secondhand merchandise, not the stylish old-money lifestyle of Gideon’s family, and man, is Ivy aware of the gap. There’s a real Lola Fabrikant theme, where I wasn’t sure if I actually liked the protagonist and wanted her to be successful, or If I just wanted to see if she’d pull it off.
Ok, so without a lot of spoilers, there’s a murder in this book, where I was simultaneously shocked, and and also nodding along, like, of course, the character destroying the past in order to move on to a new stage. Yes, that’s often part of a novel about social climbing and personal identity. Just this one has a body count.
So I know this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was sucked into the almost-parody of an immigrant narrative, the ruthlessness of our protag, the plotting of the murder, the other dark secrets that randomly pop up, and the rest of White Ivy.