Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own.
In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates.
Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life—the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family.
Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point—that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring.
Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.