BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

White Ivy by Susie Yang [in Shelf Awareness]

Susie Yang’s electrifying debut novel, White Ivy, has well earned its spot on the longlist for the Center for Fiction’s 2020 First Novel Prize. Part immigrant story, part elitist takedown, part contemporary novel of wicked manners, White Ivy is an unpredictable spectacle.

At 2, Ivy Lin was left with her maternal grandmother in China until she turned 5, when her parents finally had the resources to reunite the family “in a wonderful state in America … called Ma-sa-zhu-sai.” Reinventing herself as American proves arduous, with abusive parents, a thieving grandmother, that sudden move to New Jersey during high school, no friends. To survive, Ivy learns early the power of manipulation. Her first chance to escape her suffocating family is college in Boston, after which she begins working as an elementary schoolteacher. A chance re-encounter grants her reentry into the Speyer family’s seemingly halcyon circle – the (now-former) U.S. senator, his doyenne wife, enviously bohemian daughter Sylvia and, most importantly, perfect son Gideon, who was the idealized object of Ivy’s middle-school idolatry.

Of course, things happen. But when Ivy is certain Gideon is about to desert her, he proposes. She’s privy to all the privilege she’s ever longed for – the gorgeous rugosas in the garden of the Speyers’ Nantucket summer cottage, the tony island destination wedding of friends, the matching cashmere-and-khakis-with-pearls ensemble mimicking her patrician mother-in-law-to-be. In just a few months, Ivy will grasp that happily-ever-after she’s been relentlessly maneuvering to achieve. But now that she’s at the edge of acceptance into society’s inner circle, the alluring pull of self-sabotage grows stronger.

Living in Cambridge, England, peripatetic Yang was herself a child immigrant to the U.S. from China. Her uncommon career path to authorship includes earning a Rutgers doctorate in pharmacy and founding a San Francisco tech start-up teaching 20,000 people to code. That widespread, far-flung experience clearly influences her sprawling narrative, which she unfurls with astonishingly deft control. Her cast might be heavy with unlikable characters – scheming Ivy, pretentious Sylvia, bland Gideon, and unrepentantly roué Roux (no spoilers!) – but the story they populate is delectably addictive and frightfully perceptive, as one surprise begets another shocking turn, leading readers far off expected paths. May the deceptions never end.

Shelf Talker: Ivy Lin proves to be the antihero readers will love to hate in debut novelist Susie Yang’s assured, deft, biting novel of (manipulative) manners.

ReviewShelf Awareness Pro, October 6, 2020

Readers: Adult

Published: 2020


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