Her Grandmother Taught Her How to Steal. Now What?

WHITE IVY By Susie Yang The term “unlikable” has become a catchall in conversations about a certain type of female character. It’s been...


WHITE IVY
By Susie Yang

The term “unlikable” has become a catchall in conversations about a certain type of female character. It’s been used as a pejorative, but also as a challenge: Books declare that they’re going to accomplish something complicated and exciting by daring to present a female character who is layered, flawed, sometimes dangerous.

Susie Yang’s “White Ivy” asserts itself early as a novel invested in building its main character in this vein. “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her,” the first sentence declares. Ivy’s maternal grandmother, Meifeng, raises her in China until she’s 5; then she is shipped off to Massachusetts, where her parents live. A few years later, Meifeng joins the family in the States and teaches her granddaughter how to shoplift. She also teaches Ivy how to take things the world doesn’t seem to think she should have.

This sounds like a thrilling concept, but Ivy’s thievery is largely irrelevant to the story’s first 200 pages. There’s an early moment when she tries to steal a gift for a boy she has a crush on; another boy, with whom she also has a romantic entanglement, will help her pay for the gift instead. (Both boys resurface in the novel’s second half.) She will steal again much later — thousands of dollars from her lover — but there are almost no consequences.

[ This was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]

Ivy is also said to be a “first-rate liar,” and we read vague allusions to her performances in social settings. When she’s older, and dating the boy she tried to steal the gift for, she lets him think her parents and her upbringing are different than they are, and yet, we know they knew one another when they were younger; the book also suggests he and his sister hold her upbringing against her somehow. It’s this opacity that makes it difficult to make sense of the particular manipulation that Ivy is enacting. What is the lie exactly? And who is it for?

Later, Ivy becomes a first-grade teacher who “didn’t like children but that didn’t matter.” Except we don’t see her teach. We seldom see her spend intimate time with her boyfriend. We don’t see her grappling concretely with the financial concerns she claims to be grappling with. She stops eating briefly, seemingly over concerns about money, but then, on the same page, “She spent the day shopping at her favorite boutiques and, on a whim, bought a digital camera for Austin,” who is her brother. This is not to say that characters cannot exhibit contradictory choices and feelings, but the book could work harder to make clear the specific ones it’s attempting to portray.

[ Read an excerpt from “White Ivy.” ]

The result, instead, is a muddled idea of the character’s relationship to money, lying and romance: How broke is Ivy? How desperate is she to pretend she’s not? What does she want or like about her boyfriend? Why aren’t they having sex? Yang presents dialogue and scenes, but just as moments begin to open up toward tension — the book is rife with opportunities for tension — she skips past them. We get summary or moral after the fact.

Closer to the end, Meifeng is in the hospital and Ivy goes home. There are moments in this chapter that are deeply affecting; she is able to see and hear from her mother and grandmother in ways she’s been unable to in the rest of the book. In the penultimate section, there is a moment of extraordinary violence that feels almost surreal. But, by that point, our relationship with Ivy is not as strong as it should be. She feels like someone’s idea of “unlikable,” instead of a fully formed and flawed character, one we might feel and see and want to understand.

“White Ivy” is chock-full of compelling, exciting ideas. What it does not quite do is give the reader access to the experiences that might portray those ideas effectively in the context of a narrative. We’re not given the particular opportunity that fiction can make space for to reconsider them anew.

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Newsrust: Her Grandmother Taught Her How to Steal. Now What?
Her Grandmother Taught Her How to Steal. Now What?
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