I moved to Boston recently, and as a result I’ve been slurping up books set there. Most of them are not diverse, to put it mildly. White Ivy, a book about a Chinese-American immigrant in the city, was a refreshing surprise.
There are a lot of reviews of this by Chinese-American readers on Goodreads, and you should definitely give them some time if you want a deep cultural analysis of this book. My perspective is empathetic, but limited. It doesn’t help that the book is a bit of a chimera.
I’ve seen it billed as a coming of age, a thriller, a racial commentary, and a gritty immigrant story. It’s all of those things and none of them. Ivy joins her parents in America when she’s five. They’re cold and grim, her younger brother is the favorite, and when Ivy’s beloved grandmother joins the family later, her contempt for America leads her to develop a peculiar hobby–petty theft. Ivy picks up the habit out of a desire to fit in with her white, well-bred classmates and gain the attention of her golden boy crush. When we catch back up with adult Ivy, her juvenile dishonesty has morphed into adult sociopathy. Ivy will do anything to be accepted by the Ivy League & summer cottage set, and when the kids she idolized in the past re-enter her life as impossibly acceptable adults, things get dark very quickly.
I empathize with Ivy, honestly. There’s an awful pressure in being the poor, “ethnic” smart kid surrounded by peers whose future is guaranteed and whose parents actually contribute to their success, rather than just demanding it. Ivy does terrible things, but you can clearly see why and how she gets there. I’m not saying her behavior is ok–I’m just saying I understand.
This book has remarkable characters who subvert stereotypes and have really intriguing, sensitive backstories that they all remember in completely different ways. There’s a lot of layers to the story and although I expected the two big twists at the end, they were still very interesting to read. My only real gripe is that I wanted a bit more drama from the ending and that last twist–whew. I needed that to be unpacked within the novel, not just alluded to and suddenly dumped on us in the last few pages.
Still, this is a hell of a first novel and a really good read. Four stars and some self-acceptance to White Ivy.
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