White Ivy is a complex novel about family, class, and getting what you want, with a flawed protagonist searching for something elusive. Ivy Lin is a Chinese immigrant to came to America aged five and lives with her parents, younger brother, and grandmother in Massachusetts. She can’t match their expectations, but she does dream of winning the heart of her blond, white classmate, Gideon, a boy with a politician family and seemingly charmed life. Her grandmother teaches her to shoplift, and she gets a taste of what she could have. Now an adult, she meets Gideon and his family again, and it seems she can build a privileged life away from her parents, now with a flourishing business, but stepping into that role might not be so easy.
Susie Yang combines a range of elements in this book, from a look at the insecurities of white New England America similar to that found in books like The Goldfinch to a love triangle with unexpected twists. Ivy is a memorable protagonist, whose thievery I expected to be a larger plot point than it is, but whose personality is complicated and her motivations often questionable. This makes her a great character, suited to the slow pace with underlying darkness, with her actions often coming out of nowhere. One of the most compelling features of the book is the Lin family, especially how the reader sees them from Ivy’s point of view, and the subplot about how they don’t know how to deal with Ivy’s brother Austin was surprisingly moving.
A book that looks at immigrant experiences and seeking success in America, White Ivy is gripping and sits well alongside many other American novels of the last twenty years or so that follow a protagonist growing up and looking for success among those richer than themselves.