“Ivy Lin was a thief, but you would never know it to look at her.” So reads the first line of White Ivy by Susie Yang. Ivy is a Chinese immigrant who moved to America at a young age, after her parents saved up enough money to send for her. Her desire to fit the picture of what she believes to be the “ideal” American life leads her to make specific choices that suit that ideal. Instructed in the ways of thieving from a very young age, as she grows up, she learns new ways to perfect her craft. She goes from stealing and lying about small things to manipulating whole lives. She is careful, meticulous, and excellent at what she does, especially because she never gets caught.
The first half of the book is a well-paced exposition of Ivy’s early life, and all the key moments that were significant to who she eventually became. Once Ivy reconnects with someone from her past, the pacing of the story revs up to an almost unbearably high speed, as plot twists launch the story forward to a conclusion that left me thinking about the book for days.
The rift between Ivy and her parents, particularly her mother, are explored. Like most stories that focus on immigrant experiences, the relationship between a child and their parents who moved them to another country is one that is strained. The theme of family, duty and responsibility echoes throughout the book, to the final chapter.
In White Ivy, Susie Yang explored the immigrant experience, race, class, identity, and most profoundly, a traditionally “unlikable” woman for a main character. Women like Ivy in books are usually labelled anti-heroines, and for good reason. Nothing that Ivy does is noble, and all her actions are based on whether or not they will get her closer to what she wants most. As a reader who tries hard to suspend judgement of fictional characters, it was at times difficult to not question Ivy’s choices. At the same time, I found myself rooting for her. I think we need more women characters like this in books– women who live outside of societal and familial expectations, who craft their lives to be exactly what they wish them to be down to the smallest detail, who are ultimately unapologetic about who they are.
Reading this book felt like being an intimate observer of a person’s life, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. What I do know is that Susie Yang’s debut is a thrilling page-turner that you should read if you enjoy books that make you think.