White Ivy by Susie Yang

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the ARC. This book is being released today, November 3 2020.

My Rating: 2 stars

White Ivy is the story of Ivy Lin, who can only be defined as a thief, a liar, and manipulative. Ever since her family immigrated to the United States from China, she has been hyperaware of the differences between the white, upper class people she is surround by and herself. She longs for what they have: the perfect, wealthy, all-American WASP life. And upon growing up and running into Gideon Speyer, her old childhood crush, she sees a way of getting it. I honestly have no idea what genre to place this book in. NetGalley listed it at literary fiction and mystery/thriller. The description promises a thriller–something with twists and turns and characters with secret dark sides. The book itself is more character-driven than plot-driven, which is a feature of literary fiction. But ultimately, I don’t think it has enough elements of either to be placed firmly in these genres. It’s more just general fiction, which is fine. But it’s not what I expected upon picking up this book.

I’ve seen many reviews praising Yang for her portrayal of the Chinese immigrant experience. I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I’m neither Chinese nor an immigrant, but I definitely considered this the most interesting part of the book. Ivy’s mother, Nan, and her grandmother, Meifeng, were easily my favorite characters. I liked seeing their processing of adapting to a new country, the ways in which they navigated and manipulated the language barrier, and their interactions with various other characters. Meifeng in particular is a great character. I also found Ivy’s feeling of displacement fascinating. No matter where she is, Ivy always feels out of place. She doesn’t fit in with the rich, white kids at her New England private school, but she also doesn’t feel like she belongs when visiting relatives in China. The only person she ever seems truly comfortable with is Roux, a Romanian immigrant who lives in her neighborhood when they’re children. Because she feels so displaced, Ivy grasps at anything she can to try to fit in. As a kid, she steals make-up and clothes so she can look like her classmates. As an adult, she hides behind a carefully cultivated image so she can snare Gideon.

Unfortunately, other than these few features, I found it difficult to connect with most of the characters, which is odd because it is a character-driven book. Gideon remains distant and unknowable from the time we meet him until the very end. This makes sense to a certain extent since everything is filtered through Ivy’s perspective and that’s how she feels about him. But I felt the same way about other characters, including Roux and even Ivy herself. I knew all her vices and insecurities, yet I never felt close to her or invested in her story. It wasn’t an issue of her being unlikeable; I love unlikeable characters and actually found myself wishing she was more unlikeable. The description makes her sound like a truly conniving, horrible person; it refers to her “sinking her claws” into Gideon. She’s a bit manipulative and she lies a lot, but she’s fairly mild other than that. It was kind of disappointing.

My biggest issue with this book is that it is all build-up with no pay-off. The most exciting event happens at the 90% point and is never truly dealt with. This event felt like it should have happened at the halfway point with the rest of the book dealing with the aftermath. Yet it ends up being brushed away with just a few paragraphs. There are so many places where Yang builds tension and hints at dark secrets, but almost none of it comes to anything. This was especially disappointing because the only reason I kept reading was to find out these secrets. There is a “big reveal” about a character at the very end, but I felt it was poorly handled and even verged on a bit offensive. It should have been given far more time than it was, and honestly, Yang could have taken it into so many more interesting directions.

Overall, I went into this book expecting a literary fiction/thriller mix with great twists and a conniving female anti-hero and came out feeling extremely underwhelmed. While Yang is a talented writer and has some great concepts, she couldn’t get me invested in the characters or provide an adequate pay-off for everything she built up.

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