Right from the get-go in Susie Yang’s twisty novel, we understand the protagonist, Ivy, is a morally ambivalent character trained by her immigrant grandmother at an early age to use her unassuming appearance for cover to steal items from second-hand shops and yard sales. Ivy continues this trend into her adolescence, blithely shoplifting anywhere and everywhere in order to acquire all the trappings necessary to be accepted into the ‘in-crowd’ at her exclusive private high school and, more importantly, attract the attention of her idol, ‘golden boy’, Gideon Speyer.
Gideon becomes her perfect ideal of a man, but her darker side prefers loner and social outcast, Roux with whom she embarks on a torrid sexual relationship. When her hardworking parents discover her crimes, she’s sent back to China to ‘learn a life lesson’ but instead lands at her wealthy aunt’s home and continues to enjoy the excesses of materialism and learn everything she can about good taste and shopping. A short stay with the ‘poorer’ side of her parents’ family only confirms her determination to enjoy ‘the good life’ and become part of what she perceives as society’s ‘upper, privileged echelons’.
Interestingly, Ivy doesn’t conform to stereotype or to her parents' expectations, with her unspectacular college career that lands her a job as an elementary school teacher. But when she runs into Gideon’s sister and re-establishes contact it seems her plan to insert herself into his ‘privileged existence’ is back on track again as she pretends to prepare for law school entrance and continue a relationship with Gideon. Too bad it’s threatened by an unwelcome ghost from her past.
Ivy is an incredibly complex character. Vulnerable one minute, ruthless the next. Yang captures her internal struggle as she attempts to negotiate a society that values white privilege and all the trapping of their perceived socio-economic superiority, yet somehow causes her to devalue the financial success of her hardworking parents who turn out to be much more business-savvy and financially stable than their white counterparts.
What follows is a chain of unexpected events and a totally unpredictable ending where Ivy realizes she’s not so different from her mother in that she’s prepared to do anything to achieve her dream. Written in gorgeous razor-sharp prose, this is a remarkably subversive debut that introduces one of the most complex but compelling characters in recent fiction and cleverly shines a light on the alienation and forced ‘otherness’ of the immigrant experience.