In 2020 Asian-Americans have been maligned and blamed for everything from stealing government secrets to spreading coronavirus, yet we continue to be sidelined in dialogues on racial inequity or employed as a wedge group against other minorities. Our dream of belonging, so often viewed in recent years as nearing attainable, remains tantalizingly out of reach. On the other hand, it is that very striving that makes for the quintessential American story: the outsider who tries to make it big, gambling it all on a phantom target somewhere at the nexus of money, love, and esteem, like that shifting green light at the end of the dock in “The Great Gatsby.”
Susie Yang’s trenchant debut novel, “White Ivy,” about a young Chinese-American woman’s misguided quest to marry up and fit into the white East Coast upper class, recasts this classic narrative of the huckster and its dynamics of striving and disillusionment through a potent Asian-American lens. Yang excels at drawing sharp characters, making excruciating observations about class, family, and social norms, and painting the losses of migration and struggles Asians and other immigrants face in America. The plot, at times thriller-paced, makes it an easy page-turner, but the cutting prose movingly portrays many layers of tribulation and traumas, and marks Yang as a voice to watch.
The novel tracks the progress of Ivy Lin, an ambitious daughter of poor Chinese immigrants who grows up in the suburbs outside Boston. Ivy longs for acceptance, but she is a mediocre student and friendless. To cope, she resorts to petty theft, having sex with boys at school, and her one talent: lying about herself. Since she can’t be a model minority, she’ll fake it as one. College at a school outside Boston becomes going to Harvard. Her parents’ shabby house becomes an upscale one. As an adult she manages to embellish her way into landing a wealthy boyfriend — Gideon Speyer, her childhood crush. Ivy has long nursed crushes on the entire Speyer family with their Cape Cod summer home, their sense of comfortable “ownership” over everything, their unassuming patrician elegance. But restless Ivy begins to cheat on the well-bred Gideon with Roux, an upstart gangster son of Romanian immigrants who wants to drag Ivy back into a past she conveniently “can’t remember.” As the two men Ivy uses — one for status, the other for sex — begin to intersect in her life, she plays an increasingly dangerous game.
On the surface this book is about Ivy’s drama with men, but its emotional power lies in a more interior struggle, masterly constructed by Yang. Throughout, we inhabit Ivy’s hopes of being successful and yet feel distanced enough to criticize them. Afraid to sit near other Asian girls at school, “thinking that others would look upon their group and see them all as the same,” Ivy’s internalized racism leads her to lie constantly about who she is because she lies to herself, pretending to be a fellow white person from a clean, upper-middle-class background, as the book’s title suggests. Going out one day to face her two men with flawless makeup on, Ivy “looked as firm and new as a poached egg,” Yang writes. Unassailable as she looks, Ivy herself has been served up to a world that she thought she was playing for suckers. The egg is not hard-boiled Chinese-style, as Ivy ate them growing up, but “poached” Western-style, the word a reminder that Ivy is also the victim of a theft by entities far more deceptive than she.
Ivy’s English name is bashfully aspirational, suggesting perhaps her parents’ Chinese obsession with brand name elite Ivy League schools, as well as the climbing vine plant, which parallels Ivy’s attempts to move up. But her Chinese name, Jiyuan, translates as “lucky chance” or getting lucky. It conveys a sense of boldness, confidently seizing one’s fate — heroic qualities. And it is rooted in family, in Ivy’s equally crafty mother, Nan, and grandmother Meifeng. Yet this other name is only mentioned once in passing and then is buried, like Ivy’s true self, waiting to be mined for the richness that it holds. We never know if Ivy becomes the person we sense she was meant to be. The plot, so well-paced for most of the book, ends with sudden developments that feel contrived. But it does hold out a redeeming ember of that promise.
Like so many American-born Chinese, or ABC’s as we call them, I too grew up unconsciously shrouding myself behind the mirage of promised assimilation in a suburban life among mostly white neighbors. As a child I watched countless hours of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and Disney Channel; I loved hot dogs and pizza; I perfected my English. Like Ivy I read all the canonical authors in school, most of whom were white — only one was Asian. And piece by innocent piece, in this way I endlessly surrendered what I didn’t know was mine. Reading “White Ivy” was an unexpectedly personal step on the journey home. Not home as in going “back to” a place I’ve rarely visited — the place implied whenever I am made to hear “No, where are you really from?,” that inane xenophobic question I’m always asked by well-meaning strangers when I tell them with pride that I was born in Queens, N.Y. A different home in my heart, somewhere between two worlds.
By Susie Yang
Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $26
Victoria Zhuang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.