The so-called “Great American Novel” has more than once told the story of an outsider trying to break into an East Coast elite circle, attracted to the private clubs and vacation homes that only money can buy. Most have been written by men—think F Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Easton Ellis and Whit Stillman—but Donna Tartt also weighed in on outsiders and East Coast elitism in The Secret History. Now Susie Yang aims to insert the immigrant experience into this tradition with her debut novel, White Ivy.
Ivy Lin certainly qualifies as the outsider of modest means: her parents immigrated to the United States from China in the 1980s with very little. Left behind with her grandmother in their Sichuan village for several years, by the time Ivy reunites with her parents in Massachusetts, she doesn’t recognize them.
Ivy is not perhaps the most model member of the model minority. She learns to shoplift from her grandmother: it’s all right when one doesn’t have enough, enough in this case to have a hope of fitting in. In middle school she develops a crush on Gideon Speyer, an old money US senator’s son. When Ivy is invited to a co-ed sleepover party at Gideon’s house, she tells her parents she’s going to stay the night at a female friend’s place. Her parents find out:
Mr. Speyer did a double take. But, like Gideon, gallantry was such an ingrained habit that even caught unawares, he managed a polite hello. As his gaze took in all four Lins—Nan, Shen, Meifeng, Austin—he clucked, “Goodness, are you all here to fetch Ivy?”
Ivy and Gideon’s on-again, off-again relationship is upped a notch when Gideon’s slight embarrassment at Ivy’s elementary school teacher job is relieved by her announcement that she’s going to apply to law school. Ivy’s Chinese background is sometimes a problem among Gideon’s friends; Gideon’s best friend, Tom, is particularly nasty. He turns on Ivy:
You used to follow Gideon around back in the day. Real quiet and mousy. Now look at you. Grabbing the bull by the horns, eh? Hustled your way up like—who’s that Asian lady married to old Murdoch?
The title White Ivy is left unexplained, but it seems aspirational: Ivy would do anything to be accepted into the (very white) Boston country club set. Yang’s characters seem flawed and unlikeable at first, but she gives each if not redeeming qualities, then at least a raison d’être. The story takes numerous twists and turns along the way.
Writers like Philip Roth have written similar stories of Jewish characters trying to fit into old money America. Susie Yang’s casting of an East Asian, warts and all, in this role is yet another illustration of how far America has come. The fact that this story can still be written is an indication of how far it still needs to go.