Susie Yang’s wonderful debut novel, White Ivy, is literary fiction rather than category romance, but the author uses romance the way Jonathan Lethem or Ling Ma use science fiction and horror: as inspiration, as a theme ripe for variation, as a counterpart to argue with and as a lover to court. White Ivy's final, bleak wedding isn’t so much a parody of romance as an embrace of its sublimated, hidden darknesses — dappled, as Yang writes, 'like a sunlit path lined with flowers and green things' ... The genius of White Ivy is that each plot point of the romance is fulfilled but also undercut by a traumatic pratfall, described in language as bright and scarring as a wound ... White Ivy is in many ways a cold, clinical book. Yang puts Ivy on the operating table and exposes her weaknesses, her foolishness, her self-loathing and her broken emotional and moral compass. But just as romance has to understand the potential for sadness, the resolutely anti-romantic Yang knows you need a dollop of romance if you want to break your readers’ hearts.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
... Ivy’s fall feels lurid, like watching a reality-show train wreck spiral from one bad decision to the next ... The publisher bills White Ivy as a debut that 'turns the immigrant novel on its head,' but it’s unclear how the Lins’s immigration status seeds Ivy’s obsession with the Speyers ... While the title seems to allude to Ivy coveting Whiteness, neither she nor any of the characters seem to register the racial or gendered implications of their actions ... Even in the absence of more incisive social commentary, White Ivy is still a highly entertaining, well-plotted character study about a young woman whose obsession with the shallow signifiers of success gets her in too deep.